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7th annual Hacks for Humanity goes virtual, attracts international participation

By

Emily Balli

A biomedical engineering student in Arizona, a designer in New York, a nonprofit professional in Canada and a high school student in Israel wouldn’t typically find themselves in the same place at the same time before 2020. But this year, at Arizona State University's Project Humanities’ seventh annual Hacks for Humanity event, diverse groups like this worked together virtually to create innovative tools to advance solutions to big social challenges.

From Oct. 9–11, 59 competitors of all ages and backgrounds logged on from 14 countries around the world: Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Peru, Nigeria, Kazakhstan, Israel, India, Ghana, Canada, the United States, Uganda, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan. Within the U.S., competitors participated from six different states: Arizona, California, Indiana, Illinois, New Jersey, New York and Texas.

Although Project Humanities has always had an international vision, Neal Lester, professor of English at The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and director of Project Humanities, said the shift to virtual programming in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic allowed them to connect with global audiences like never before. On night one, participants were randomly assigned to teams, in contrast to typical hackathons, where teams are often preassembled. Among them were high school and college students, business professionals, graphic designers, humanists, computer programmers and developers. The formation of random teams is by design, with the intention of fostering interdisciplinary collaboration.

“With Hacks for Humanity we're interested in bringing people into new conversation and having them think differently when they leave our events,” Lester said. “When they come in, they know no one and nothing, and they don't get to choose their teams. But by the time they leave, sometimes they leave with friendships, they leave with some new ideas and they leave with a sense of accomplishment — look at what we've done together.”

Teams communicated primarily through Zoom and Slack, and were supported throughout the event by a multitude of mentors, volunteers and Project Humanities staff. The objective for the teams was to work together to create a product or tool that addressed an issue relating to one of three tracks; aging, safety or justice. In addition, products had to embody three of the seven principles in Project Humanities’ Humanity 101 movement — empathy, compassion, respect, integrity, forgiveness, kindness and self-reflection. 

Building a global community virtually

Mohit Doshi, a senior at ASU majoring in computer science and a third-time participant of the event, first attended Hacks for Humanity in 2017. The experience sparked his interest in hackathons; he’s since participated in more than 25 hackathons across Arizona and the U.S.

“For me, Hacks for Humanity really opened my eyes to hackathon culture,” Doshi said. “Seeing how people can ideate, develop, prototype and demo something in a span of 36 or 48 hours is always so amazing. Because of COVID-19, doing events like these is a good break from my routine and also a great way to meet people.”

The Project Humanities staff incorporated fun and engaging ways for participants to make connections around the world including an at-home scavenger hunt, a breakfast show-and-tell, a Bob Ross-inspired Microsoft Paint challenge, a game night, slideshow karaoke as well as other presentations from entrepreneurs and experts around the country.

Rachel Sondgeroth, Project Humanities program coordinator, was the main architect of the online experience, creating all of the technical blueprints and leading the IT team. Sondgeroth said she was not only pleasantly surprised by the high-level of international participation but also by the way individuals bonded in-spite of differing time zones.

“Initially, the Project Humanities team feared that hosting the event online would take away from the community-building aspect of the event,” she said. “Luckily, we were proven wrong. We saw that the teams actually found a way to bond with one another as they worked through their projects. The small events and activities helped build an overall sense of community and by the end, we felt like a little family. I am glad we were able to preserve that aspect.” 

Diverse teams creating innovative solutions

On the final night of the event, a panel of judges selected seven out of 11 teams to present five-minute live pitches to share their product or concept. 

In first place was Whole Heart, an app that seeks to empower potential domestic abuse victims and identify if their relationship is abusive, connect them to services, provide ongoing support and give them the ability to record incidents of abuse in a digital journal. The app was created with safe and secure access in mind, with built-in “camouflaging” features including the ability to change the app icon to make it appear as a yoga or cooking app.

The winning team consisted of four members; Juliet Addo, an ASU graduate student studying biomedical engineering in Arizona; Lauren Dukes, a user experience/interface designer based out of New York; Shitangshu Roy, a nonprofit professional based out of Canada; and Noam Zaks, a high school student from Israel.

“We started out with lots of projects under each topic. Eventually we ended up agreeing to focus on domestic violence because we recognized that there had been an increase in domestic violence since quarantine began,” Addo said. “It’s something that is going to gradually increase if nothing is done about it. So we were drawn to that because we’re passionate about it and we all believe everyone should have a safe space where they can thrive.”

Although the team is unsure of what the future holds for Whole Heart, they said they ultimately left the experience with new friendships as well as a deeper appreciation for cross-discipline collaboration with a diverse group of individuals.

“I really do think that there is power in focusing on diversity in problem-solving and in conversations around issues that relate to all of us,” Dukes said. “Everyone is affected by aging, safety and justice. I love that Project Humanities is trying to bring in as many people as possible to come up with the best solutions possible. The event isn't necessarily focused on coming up with the coolest technology, instead it’s about coming up with the best solution to an existing problem.”

Runner-ups included: Night Light, an app where users can stay safe by tracking and reporting their whereabouts to friends and family; Elder Aid, an app for older adults to easily find and access resources and benefits; and Good Neighbors, an app that facilitates volunteer food delivery services for people in vulnerable communities such as older adults and immunocompromised people.

Winning participants were awarded $10,000 in cash prizes through the support of sponsors including State Farm, Silicon Valley Bank, Come Rain or Shine Foundation, Amazon Tempe, ASU Smart City Cloud Innovation Center, ASU J. Orin Edson Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute, and Celtic Property Management.

Finding strength, resiliency and connection in difficult times

Lexie Gilbert, a PhD student at ASU studying linguistics and applied linguistics and a graduate teaching associate for ASU’s writing programs, served as one of the judges for the event. Gilbert said she feels events like these not only help bridge the gap between the humanities and technical fields like computer science, but they also highlight new ways to communicate.

“People from all over the world were able to attend the hackathon and meet and work with others. What a mental, physical, emotional, communicative exercise — to be put into groups with people from all over the world with the goal to create some meaningful product,” Gilbert said. “There are new ways of being in the world together, and that’s kind of exciting. Like many other events happening right now, Hacks for Humanity reminds us of all the ways we’re isolated from other people, but also the warmth, resilience and connection we’re still capable of.”

Although pulling off the event was no small task, Shana Tobkin, Project Humanities coordinator, said it showed the Project Humanities team the power of virtual human connection.  

“I learned that despite not being able to interact face-to-face, people can still connect with each other in meaningful ways,” Tobkin said. “While this year has been challenging for everyone, particularly with the increase in isolation, this event demonstrated that we can still form meaningful relationships and create things together that benefit the social good.” 

Looking toward the future, the Project Humanities team said they hope to offer a hybrid form of Hacks for Humanity in 2021, given the high-level of international interest at this year's event.