How hackers are making the world a better place

This weekend, more than 10,000 people around the world – including here in Australia – will take part in Random Hacks of Kindness, using technology to solve pressing community issues.

Have you ever wanted to improve your neighborhood, your city, or even your country, but didn’t know where to start because the challenge seemed so large? Thanks to advancements in technology, there are now new ways for you to connect with others and collaborate on solutions that can have a very real impact.

Imagine how you might be able to transform your city if you could harness the collective genius of thousands of citizens to address some of the challenges facing us all. There are so many good examples of mass collaboration at work today. If masses can peer-produce an operating system, and write an encyclopedia or the Icelandic constitution, one should carefully consider what might come next.

We live in an age where people around the world are increasingly interested in taking an active role in changing their communities for the better, and the possibilities of the impact we can collectively have are really only limited by our imagination and our will to act. It’s just a matter of getting started.

This weekend over 100 volunteer change-makers in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane will join 11,000 others in 100 cities around the world to participate in Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) -- a two-day, global hackathon aimed at developing practical open technology solutions to help make the world a better place.

RHoK was founded in 2009 by Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, NASA, and the World Bank after hearing about the challenges that NGOs, governments, and first responders faced during disaster responses such as Hurricane Katrina and the Boxing Day tsunami. The founding partner organisations came together to create an active development community of volunteers to build applications that support disaster response and humanitarian relief.

RHoK has more recently broadened its scope to tackle worldwide development challenges and social challenges, with each city defining and addressing local issues for that community. RHoK works by connecting subject matter experts that have a challenge to address with volunteer change-makers who have a variety of skills, including software development and design. RHoK hosts 'hackathon' weekend events as part of its approach to social impact, giving the community an opportunity to focus on developing solutions.

The 6000-strong international community continues to collaborate year round, expanding the reach of the projects worked on. Additionally, RHoK is now part of an even larger collaboration called National Day of Civic Hacking, which will take place in over 100 cities around the world, with the focus of improving our communities and the governments that serve them. On this coming weekend, nearly 15,000 citizens from 11 countries will take part in National Day of Civic Hacking.

Australian RHoK stars have joined with subject matter experts and local stakeholders to develop solutions for numerous issues at global RHoK hackathons at events in Sydney and Melbourne since 2011. RHoK Brisbane was founded in 2013.

A recent Australian RHoK success is the Realtime Bushfire Information Dashboard. The open source solution was incubated at the December 2012 RHoK in response to a request from the Warrandyte Community Association. Residents in the Greater Warrandyte area can access real-time information in a single web portal, Warrandyte Fire Watch. The portal combines official sources (such as fire alerts) as well as crowd-sourced information from the community via Twitter in order to help residents make potentially life-saving decisions.

The Realtime Bushfire Information Dashboard was designed to ensure configurability so that it could be used on other communities’ websites and has since been implemented by the Aurora Community Association.

Community and disaster response issues to be tackled at the Australian June RHoKs include helping the Indigenous Literacy Foundation to raise the level of literacy skills in remote indigenous communities and developing an app for Witness King Tides that allows users to take photos of the Australian coast with their smartphone and post them online to engage Australians around the issue and impact of rising sea levels.

The RHoK community is open to anybody who wants to volunteer their skills or suggest a problem to solve. Interested volunteer programmers, designers and change-makers are invited to get an idea of what goes on at a RHoK event by viewing the video below of RHoK Melbourne, or by following your city on Twitter: @RHoKAustralia, @RHoKMelb, @RHoKSydney, @RhokBrisbane.

The RHoK events are being held on May 31 and June 1 at Swinburne University in Melbourne, Fishburners tech co-working space in Sydney and NetEngine’s offices in Brisbane. To sign up for the events, register in advance at www.rhokmelbourne.org, rhoksydney.org or www.meetup.com/Rhok-Brisbane.

Nick Skytland is a partner at innovation and collaboration agency SecondMuse, the global operational lead for the National Day of Civic Hacking. He was previously program manager for NASA's Open Innovation program.

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