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What the Hack?

Hack for Western Mass pairs civic-minded computer programmers with community organizations.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

According to (Springfield’s) Merriam-Webster online dictionary, to hack is to “cut or sever with repeated or unskillful blows,” or “write computer programs for enjoyment” and “gain access to a computer illegally.” None of which sounds particularly helpful.

But Becky Sweger, organizer of the upcoming Hack for Western Mass, has a different take on the term. “Hacking is a form of creative problem solving for some kind of greater good,” she tells the Advocate. Volunteer hackers use technology to help local groups solve a challenge, create a project, or better serve their community.

Hack for Western Mass, she adds, does a great job of connecting technologists with non-profits and the government.

Last year’s hack “used data from the Census Bureau, the FCC and the MA Department of Environmental Protection in its projects,” says Sweger. “Hackathons like ours, that partner with non-profits, can be a way for an organization that doesn’t have a particular skill in-house to borrow some expertise.”

This year’s second annual Hack for Western Mass takes place June 6-8 at Gateway City Arts in Holyoke’s canal district. The event pairs non-profit groups with designers, programmers and community activists of varying technological ability. Sweger stresses that participants need not be super tech-savvy. “Just as a movie needs more than just the actors to be made, a hackathon needs more than just computer programmers,” she says.

The weekend hackathon is part of a larger movement that has been burgeoning for years and received increased notoriety in 2013 when the White House issued a call for a National Day of Civic Hacking. Last year’s inaugural event featured 95 hacking gatherings across the country and involved more than 95,000 people. A national organization, hackforchange.org, was born from the call.

“That was a big deal,” notes Sweger, “for the White House to use the word hacking.”

The national office offers organizers of local events support with outreach and fundraising. “We also got a swag box of stickers and banners,” adds Sweger, “tools for us to use when people were dubious about hackers.”

Last year’s Hack for Western Mass took place on the UMass campus. About 100 volunteer hackers worked on nine problems posed by eight local groups. Hilltown Seed Saver set out to create a virtual library of seeds located throughout the region, and the Prison Policy Initiative looked at FCC records to better understand the prison phone industry.

“It was an intense but really fun weekend,” Sweger says. “There was a really good mix of programmers, web designers and social media experts. Plus, writers helped blog and communicate about the project.”

Sweger expects a similar turnout this year. “The credibility is already there.”

After a meet-and-greet on Friday evening, the event gets going Saturday morning as each organization making a presentation about a problem they are hoping to solve using technology. Individual hackers will then break into teams based on which group’s challenge they are most excited to work on. The weekend concludes with the various hack teams presenting their proposed solutions to the other groups on Sunday.

Organizations planning to attend this year will present a wide array of issues. The Hatfield-based Food Bank of Western Mass wants a tool to help community members more easily access information about food resources. The Franklin Hampshire Regional Employment Board is looking to design a visually attractive document that will make labor market reports more user-friendly for anti-poverty agencies, educational institutions and other economic development groups. Springfield’s Community Foundation of Western Mass hopes to create a visual display of community needs and philanthropic giving.

“In the past few years, all levels of government have been opening up data that they create or collect. The idea is that the public can take that data, perhaps combining it with other data, and use it to create tools for their own communities,” Sweger explains. “For example, the Department of Health and Human Services sponsors a Health Datapalooza that encourages participants to make creative uses of HHS data.”

The STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) group at Holyoke’s Girls Inc. would like to explore worldwide hunger by examining data on age, race, gender, income and unemployment.

“We strive to make STEM real for girls. We want it to be practical and relevant to girls’ lives and their college and career aspirations,” Girls Inc.’s Leah Uberseder tells the Advocate. “The civic hacking of Hack for Western Mass provides an ideal opportunity to exercise the practical application of technology, an enormous complement to our current programs.

“The Hack is also a great chance to bring youth voices into public conversations about civic challenges in an empowering way,” continues Uberseder. “[Our girls] will be given an equal platform with the other adult civic hack teams—benefiting the adult participants as well as the girls.”

The desire to include more voices is a major reason why this year’s hackathon has been moved from UMass to downtown Holyoke.

“We experienced some barriers last year, trying to get people to Amherst,” Sweger says, noting that Hampden County not only has more people, but a more diverse population, too. “Diverse perspectives,” she adds, “are key for problem solving.”

Once the organizers decided to move their hack’s location to the southern Valley, the Paper City became an easy pick.

“Holyoke has this great energy as a city,” says Sweger, noting its burgeoning role as a technology center.

Uberseder says Girls Inc., whose office is about a hundred yards from Gateway City Arts, couldn’t be more pleased with this year’s choice of location. “It’s certainly great from our perspective,” she says. “Locating the hack in Holyoke builds on the innovation that is already occurring in our community.”

“Getting out of our respective silos to work on a common project makes us all smarter," adds Sweger, "and makes the community stronger.”•

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