This past weekend, I participated in Hack for Western Mass as part of the National Day of Civic Hacking.1 This was my first hackathon and initially I was skeptical that you could accomplish much of anything with strangers during a weekend. But I turned out be wrong.
I was truly impressed with the ideas that community leaders and activists came up with including tracking the federal budget, developing a website to encourage local banking, mapping well sites in Western Mass, making a database/website to share information about local seeds. I worked on a project to map data on impoverished clients and reference this data with census data. A woman from the US Census came all the way from Connecticut to help out with the project, which illustrates how important this is. The census data was used to anonymize client information since we could map client addresses to specific census tracts, which was specific enough for data analysis, but reasonably obscured clients' personal data. This project was also my first experience working on a software team and it was interesting to listen to all the conversations. We had two experienced developers and since they understood project management, they really drove the conversation. In general, I noticed that across all the ideas, there was a common need for websites, databases, mapping, and visualization.
During the afternoon of the second day, the teams presented their work. People did great work for the short time period. The teams that made websites had the most polished projects, whereas teams that had a lot of backend work (like ours) seemed more likely to present incomplete work.
The number of interesting ideas and the enthusiasm of all involved was a great inspiration to me. Community building and grassroots activism is important to me and I was very glad to find out that hackers and developers can help these people out.
It appears that if you have front-end website/design skills or mapping/visualization skills, you can easily use these skills for social good! There are probably people in your community who need you!