Time to hack the hackathon

How can user-centred approaches help hackathons for social good become more meaningful agents for change?

Hackathons are everywhere. In fact, at least two hackathons occur daily around the world. Developers, designers, researchers, entrepreneurs and others converge at these events to develop apps and other technologies in merely 24 hours or over a few days. Hackathon topics vary, but recently there has been an uptick in those centred on complex social issues like hunger and homelessness,  peacebuilding and climate change.

Hackathons for social good are popular because they spur creativity, connect like-minded individuals and help raise awareness around important causes. By the end of these events, participants present inspirational possibilities and innovative thinking around a given social issue. Due to the urgent nature of hackathons though, it is a challenge to ground these innovations in meaningful user-centred approaches. So how can we as design researchers adapt to the hackathon format? How do we incorporate the experiences, needs and feedback of affected communities in such a quick timeframe? First, we need to understand what socially conscious hackathons can gain from user research.

Although hackathon participants typically have a genuine interest in social change, they are often far removed from the realities of the communities they wish to help. I’ll use myself as an example. Like many others, I am upset and enraged by the growing list of innocent Black lives lost at the hands of American police officers. As an ally I can educate myself, engage in demonstrations and feel angry.  I have no claim, however, to the realities of being a walking target in a society unwilling to acknowledge my humanity. I am a White American.

Although hackathon participants typically have a genuine interest in social change, they are often far removed from the realities of the communities they wish to help. 

If I attempted to singlehandedly design a technology addressing racism I would be completely misguided because I have never personally experienced a single act of racism. When privileged individuals like myself try to design for communities outside of our own, we risk addressing perceived rather than genuine needs and experiences.

For example, the One Laptop Per Child project aimed to provide affordable laptops to children in developing nations, but some critics interpreted the project as culturally biased. While technology may be a first world necessity, some schools in developing countries had more essential needs like finding teachers and buying basic school supplies.

Paulo Freire addresses the risk of cultural bias in charity work in his seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

One cannot expect positive results from an educational or political action program which fails to respect the particular view of the world held by the people. Such a program constitutes cultural invasion, good intentions notwithstanding.”

To respect the realities of affected citizens, when designing for social good, the citizens themselves need a voice in and the agency to directly contribute to the design process. Their worldviews must be appropriately represented, and we as designers and researchers should enable more co-creation opportunities. This kind of user-driven innovation has several promising effects. It allows us to act as facilitators rather than saviours. It can empower and turn impacted citizens into community activists, working to positively change the issues affecting their lives and their communities. It can also enhance the adoption of a technology because members of the community know that the people who created the innovation share their experiences. 

So how then can we as researchers better engage with affected citizens when hacking for social good? There are some existing examples we can look to for inspiration. For example, the Co-Creation Hub incorporates hackathons in a three-phased approach to designing technologies for social good. The hackathon is part of an initial ideation stage. Prototypes of ideas are then tested and refined with directly impacted citizens, experts, entrepreneurs and others as a co-creation exercise. OpenIDEO social challenges have maintained the essential hackathon approach but stretched it over a few months to allow time for user-centred research.

While these are promising ways forward, it is just a beginning. We need to continue to find ways to better understand and engage relevant communities in social good hackathons. How can citizens better inform the process, content and outputs of hackathons? What might be learned, borrowed or harnessed from citizen science approaches? What tools could we use to capture data? And how would we ensure that data is interpreted correctly? Could hackathons for good take place at hubs within the affected community? How could we work with local social organisations and activists to engage communities, to involve them in the actual design process and to build ideas beyond the hackathon?

Raising and addressing these questions is essential to the evolution of the hackathon for social good. By furthering our thoughts and discussions around this topic, we can turn a potentially feel-good experiment in social change to something that actually benefits and empowers a community.

If you’d like to be a part of this conversation, please get in touch with us by email or on Twitter.

Mindset Reminders

  • Hackathons for social good are great opportunities to create, inspire and raise awareness but they sometimes lack user-centred approaches necessary to create socially responsible and sustainable technologies.
  • Affected citizens must have a voice and the agency to help create technologies; otherwise their actual needs and context may be ignored. 
  • While there are emerging social good hackathon models incorporating human-centred research and user-driven innovation, we can still look for innovative ways to ensure citizens are understood and engaged.


Freire, Paulo. (1970) “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”. Herder and Herder.

Image: Street art courtesy of Bansky

Elli Panagopoulos