The term “hacker” usually conjures up an image of a nefarious computer whiz secretively working in a dark room. But at Hacks for Humanity at The University of Texas at Dallas in October, that notion couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Dozens of computer experts and nonexperts joined Arizona State University in tying technical knowledge to compassion in an effort to solve societal ills. For the first time, UT Dallas co-hosted the 36-hour hackathon, which originated at Arizona State five years ago.
At a hackathon, which can last several hours or days, programmers and those with technical backgrounds work together on a particular product. Each participant plays a different role and makes a different contribution.
“This is different from usual UTD hackathons,” said Rod Wetterskog, one of the organizers of the event and assistant dean of corporate relations in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science.
In a departure from the usual structure, students, faculty, staff and community members, each with individual talents and levels of expertise, were welcomed. Approximately 70 people, including artists, coders, app makers, designers, engineers and entrepreneurs took part. They ranged from high school students to professionals to retirees. Livestreaming between the two universities shared video of workshops and collaborations.
The goal of Hacks for Humanity was to encourage a social good and to challenge participants to create technologies that address local and global issues.
Participants were encouraged to select one issue from a list of themes that included parenting, mobility and social justice. They also were asked to choose at least three of seven principles: kindness, compassion, integrity, respect, empathy, forgiveness and self-reflection. The participants were given guidelines and milestones provided by event facilitators. State Farm provided some financial support, and employees served as mentors and judges at UT Dallas for awards and prizes.
The concept of helping others hit close to home for attendees such as Thomas Dang, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer science from UT Dallas last May. He volunteered to help victims of the Garland, Texas, tornado in December 2015.
“It’s one thing to see the devastation of a tornado on television,” he said. “But to see it firsthand was something I’d never witnessed before in my life. I saw there was a lot of paperwork and communication by phone, but no app where people could have a map of the affected regions and work together. It was very eye-opening,” he said.
Dang said Hacks for Humanity inspired him to help create an app called ReElevate for the contest. His team placed second in the event.
“It felt good to have this energy around people who want to do something for the common good,” he said. “I feel positive and energetic. That’s why I wanted to be a part of this.”
John Cole, senior lecturer in computer science in the Jonsson School, and Dr. Ben Wright, assistant professor in the School of Arts and Humanities, helped to coordinate UT Dallas’ efforts at the event.
“This is my baby. I live to work on these kinds of things,” Cole said. “UTD has done many hackathons but none quite like this,” he said.
Wright appreciated engaging with colleagues in other disciplines.
“Students, and especially faculty, rarely get the chance to work across campus on this kind of interdisciplinary work. I know I learned a lot from my colleagues in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science, and I hope they benefited from having a humanist involved in the planning process,” he said.
The momentum from Hacks for Humanity does not stop once the winning teams claim their prizes. Attendees signed a pledge promising to practice the seven principles in their own lives. And organizers plan to co-host Hacks for Humanity again.
“I do enjoy the heck out of this,” Cole said. “But I especially like being part of something bigger than myself and getting groups of people to talk. It gives us a broader view of the world.”
ABOUT THE UT DALLAS COMPUTER SCIENCE DEPARTMENT
The UT Dallas Computer Science program is one of the largest Computer Science departments in the United States with over 2,800 bachelors-degree students, more than 1,000 master’s students, 190 Ph.D. students, 52 tenure-track faculty members, and 41 full-time senior lecturers, as of Fall 2018. With The University of Texas at Dallas’ unique history of starting as a graduate institution first, the CS Department is built on a legacy of valuing innovative research and providing advanced training for software engineers and computer scientists.