Ahwatukee Professor Neal Lester scored a major achievement with his annual Hacks for Humanity last month.
Lester, Foundation Professor of English at Arizona State University and founding director of its Project Humanities, attracted internal participation because the three-day event was held virtually.
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 because Project Humanities’ seventh annual Hacks for Humanity event, diverse groups like this worked together on innovative tools to advance solutions to big social challenges.
Lester reported that 59 competitors of all ages and backgrounds logged on from 14 countries around the world, while others logged in from six states.
Normally, people of all ages and backgrounds gather on the ASU campus, working in teams to come up with tools addressing an issue related to one of three tracks. This year the tracks were aging, safety and justice.
What they develop also must embody three of the seven principles in Project Humanities’ Humanity 101 movement – empathy, compassion, respect, integrity, forgiveness, kindness and self-reflection.
“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.”
Teams communicated primarily through Zoom and Slack and were supported throughout the event by a multitude of mentors, volunteers and Project Humanities staff.
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 and has 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, created the technical blueprints and led the IT team.
“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.”
On the final night, 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 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.
“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.”
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. …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.
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.