MIT participates in International Development Hackathon; MIT students in half of winning teams

“Code for Good” class held over IAP also connects students with nonprofit organizations

This year, the Tufts Entrepreneur Society and Tufts Empower groups joined MIT to organize the annual International Development Hackathon (IDHack), which took place Feb. 13-14 at Tufts University. For the past two years, MIT’s Global Poverty Initiative (GPI) student group has partnered with a Harvard student group to plan the annual IDHack.

This year’s IDHack drew around 24 projects and 300 attendees, including sponsors, volunteers, and representatives from organizations. This was an increase from the 20 projects and 200 attendees last year. There were MIT students on four of the eight winning teams.

Unlike traditional hackathons, IDHack provided participants with project proposals from organizations involved in international development, including the World Bank, the Peace Corps, and the World Food Program, said Jenny Lin ’16, the GPI member who planned this event. Representatives from these organizations were also present at the hackathon to work with participants.

Malte B. Ahrens ’17, a participant at this year’s IDHack, characterized the projects as “hacks with purpose,” and the fusion of international development and hackathons as “an interesting mindset [of] let’s save the world, fix things, be a hero […] combined with the traditional energy and enthusiasm of a hackathon, of that all-nighter adventure.”

He also expressed concerns about the “standard approach for a lot of international development hackathons to […] condense all the problems down to problem statements, give them to people who might build a solution from an engineering or technical side, and take that output and try to make something with it… [It] makes you wonder if perhaps this overspecialization… makes you lose sight of the bigger picture.”

Looking ahead, Lin said that a goal of IDHack was “for projects that are made in the hackathon to have a life after the hackathon [and] for more of the organizations to take on projects that were implemented.” They have reached out to representatives at the World Bank about continuing projects, recognizing that “the big part of them having a life after the hackathon is that we connect the participants with the organizations that they’re working for.” For instance, the Peace Corps adopted the design of a new job search and application portal created by one of the winning projects last year.

The IDHack organizers were not alone in their mission of connecting students to nonprofits, and encouraging students to use their technical skills to create social impact. This January, 28 students had the opportunity to work with seven local nonprofit organizations in an IAP class titled “Code for Good”, which was sponsored by the MIT Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and Association for Computing Machinery (IEEE/ACM) club.

Anish R. Athalye ’17, Benjamin Y. Chan ’16, Victoria L. Dean ’17, and Erik S. Nguyen ’16 created the class after noticing that MIT lacked programs that had a “format where you can work with a non-profit organization for an extended period of time, and really help them by building some infrastructure they need using your [computer science] skills,” according to Athalye.

“Not very many people whom I’ve encountered at MIT spend their free time building projects to help the community per se in a very material way, and this program’s goal is to facilitate that,” said Chan.

Comparing the Code for Good class to traditional hackathons, Athalye added, “We really wanted to facilitate connections between MIT students and local non-profit organizations, connections that students might maintain after our class was over.”

In designing the class, Chan explained that the team focused on smaller nonprofits that lacked the bandwidth to develop their own applications or technologies, because these were the organizations that could especially benefit from MIT’s resources. The team was able to organize multiple visits to the offices of the nonprofits, to allow students a firsthand understanding of their mission and work, through direct interactions with members of the nonprofits.

The Code for Good team has been contacted by individuals interested in starting similar groups at their schools, and has also met with organizers of similar programs at other schools. Dean sees potential to scale the class, which received cross-registrations from Harvard and Wellesley students.

Chan added, “We’ve helped out seven nonprofits in a month; why can’t we do even more?”

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