Our own history is deeply intertwined with the history of hackathons, which have helped shape the way we think

In 2012, the year the NASA Space Apps Challenge debuted, the term “hackathon” officially went mainstream. The Oxford English Dictionary granted the word entry into its database, defining it as “an event, typically lasting several days, in which a large number of people meet to engage in collaborative computer programming.”

Today it needs no introduction. Across the world, students, professional programmers, governments and companies like SecondMuse turn to hackathons to prototype ideas and solutions to an expansive range of problems: harmful algae blooms in the U.S., visual impairment in India, the global fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Besides being used as solution generators, hackathons today are also embraced for their role in advancing international collaboration and strengthening the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Given their ubiquity, it can be easy to forget how novel the concept of a hackathon once was when they first began gaining traction. SecondMuse was very involved in their earliest iterations and shift toward social issues, which eventually resulted in us running the world’s largest hackathon, the NASA Space Apps Challenge, now approaching its 10th year. Our own legacy is closely tied to the history of hackathons, which shapes the way we think about the world and collaboration.

Early Roots In Disaster Response

The roots of hackathons, as we know them today, go back to 2005 when Hurricane Katrina decimated parts of the U.S. Gulf coast. With phone lines and internet down, families and friends of those impacted by the storm struggled to find out whether their loved ones were safe. The urgent need inspired thousands of volunteers to contribute to the Katrina PeopleFinder Project, a searchable database of missing people.

“After Katrina people started to realize that in the wake of disasters, technologists wanted to do more than donate money,” says Todd Khozen, co-founder and co-CEO of SecondMuse. “They wanted to volunteer their time to build technologies and solve problems.”

A few years later, Stuart Gill, who is now SecondMuse’s Global Head of Impact, sponsored an event for the World Bank, where he was working at the time, to convene an emerging community of technologists that were responding to disasters. During the event, the audience asked Microsoft, Google and Yahoo! to host a hackathon for them. Gill gathered those organizations and got to work. “We at the World Bank had this incredible vision of a world without poverty,” he recalls. “However, this vision was something that we could not achieve by ourselves, so I was always looking for opportunities to enable others to participate in the mission of the Bank. Microsoft, Google and Yahoo! saw the vision too and with a little encouragement we made it happen.”

That initial event led to the development of free and open-source coding for disaster response software solutions. The group invited NASA and SecondMuse to join them in this effort, which gave way to Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK). The initiative launched in 2009 and set out to build a global community of technologists dedicated to developing solutions to crises. The top prize from the first RHoK hackathon went to “I’m OK,” a website and application that allows people in disasters to let friends and family know they are safe. The tool became an important resource for people affected by the 2010 earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, and put hackathons firmly on the map.

From there, RHoK quickly expanded into a global community managed by SecondMuse. Khozein attributes its rapid expansion to the results early hackathons were generating.

“There was a realization that, if experts can articulate a problem really well, we can have technologists come together to develop solutions,” he says.

From Crisis Response to Exploring Possibilities of Open Data

While early hackathons were organized mainly in response to disasters, NASA’s early embrace of the events and willingness to open its trove of data to the public helped transform them into something less reactive and more rooted in exploration.

Amid an Obama administration-led push for greater U.S. government transparency, NASA set out to open its data — 40 years of archived data and terabytes of additional Earth Science data generated each day — to the public. “But what did that actually mean?” Khozein says. “Lots of data was not being used and many times it was hard to understand. That’s where SecondMuse came in. We helped NASA open up data and create an engagement mechanism through a global, distributed hackathon initiative so communities around the world would utilize the data to collaborate and develop technology prototypes and solutions.”

The result was the International Space Apps Challenge, an annual 48-hour sprint that engages thousands of people around the world to work with NASA’s open source data and answer some of the most pressing challenges on Earth and in space. Thousands of people and organizations participated in the debut challenge in 2012 and continue to engage until this day. Its success inspired NASA’s Earth Science Division and Open Innovation team to see how mass collaboration can go even further and solve civic challenges. That year we also planned an initiative called the National Day of Civic Hacking (NDoCH) with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which lent us their support.

“We knew that ordinary citizens had tremendous expertise, but had no way of contributing their skills to national problems,” says Khozein. “They didn’t have access to the problems or to the data that could enable them to solve them. So we proposed a National Day of Civic Hacking that would provide these talented citizens access to that data.”

It was not long before we had aligned three strong leaders with National Day of Civic Hacking: Random Hacks of Kindness, Code for America, and Innovation Endeavors. A leadership team was convened that included SecondMuse, other Federal Government Agencies (NASA, Census Bureau and FEMA), local leads, and other interested parties. The event was officially announced at the White House in 2012 and launched the following year.

Legacy

Today, all three initiatives — National Day of Civic Hacking, Random Hacks of Kindness and NASA Space Apps — have expanded into global communities.

National Day of Civic Hacking celebrated its 8th year last year with an event that brought together more than 1,000 civic leaders, public servants, designers, coders, and engaged citizens to partner with local government and community groups to help those most in need of social safety net services during COVID-19.

Random Hacks of Kindness is active around the world and has inspired multiple national chapters and a spinoff, RHofK Jr, for children in grades 4 through 8.

NASA Space Apps (which is currently led by NASA’s Earth Science Division and is implemented by SecondMuse, Booz Allen Hamilton and Mindgrub) sources over 2,200 technology projects every year. In 2020, the program gathered over 45,000 participants across more than 220 locations in 150 countries and created the NASA Space Apps COVID-19 Challenge, which generated over 1,400 solutions to pandemic related challenges. Next up is a weeklong, virtual Earth Observation Dashboard Hackathon that will study the environmental effects of COVID-19. The event, which will take place from June 23-29, will be hosted by NASA, ESA (European Space Agency), and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

“While we continue increasing the number of technology solutions developed at NASA’s International Space Apps Challenge year over year, we are also focused on public engagement with NASA challenges and open data, supporting the development of STEM skills in participants, and fostering international collaboration,” says Neisan Massarrat, Senior Director of Strategic Programs at SecondMuse and a Global Team Leader at NASA Space Apps.

While SecondMuse’s programming now includes global hackathons, innovation prizes and challenges, incubators, accelerators, fund management, and more, all of our work is still tightly tied to the idea that the world’s problems must be solved collaboratively and as one global human family.

“Climate change and the big problems of the world cannot be solved at the individual level,” Khozein says. “Hackathons demonstrated to us the power of the collective and cross-sector partnerships, and cemented our belief that the solutions we need are out there and that we just need to bring the right people together and empower them.”