Hacking for Social Justice

July 11, 2019

If your notions about computer hacking feature coders spreading anarchy and amassing Bitcoin fortunes with nefarious online exploits, then an event during the Spring 2019 semester might force you to rethink. Hack Grinnell College (Hack GC), now in its fourth year of sponsorship by the Wilson Center, is a weekend-long marathon of computer coding and entrepreneurship as part of “I Love Data Week” to show participants that, rather than merely being a tool for tearing down the status-quo, hacking can also advance social justice.

“I think that commitment to social justice is necessary in tech spaces,” said 2019 HackGC participant Elise Bargman ’21 in an interview with the Scarlet & Black. “I’m really glad that the Grinnell community and the Grinnell tech community has decided to take that on as part of [its] mission.” It’s worth emphasizing that Bargman is a gender, women’s and sexuality studies major, not a computer science major. This was Bargman’s second time participating in the College’s hackathon.

Not Always Benign

The history of hackthons has not always been benign. The first event to use that name was a meeting of ten hackers who met in Canada in 1999 to discuss ways of getting around U.S. export regulations on cryptographic software. Then, in 2013, developers Mike Swift and Jonathan Gottfried formed an organization they dubbed Major League Hacking (MLH) to promote student-run hackathons at colleges and universities throughout in North America. The idea, according to the organization’s website, was to foster “an engaged and passionate maker community, consisting of the next generation of technology leaders and entrepreneurs.” One hallmark of the event is that one needn’t be a coder in order to take part.

Grinnell joined this movement during MLH’s founding year by sending a group of seven students to the MHacks event at the University of Michigan. The meeting was attended by 1,200 participants from over 100 schools across the country, and featured high-profile guest speakers as well as marathon coding sessions. It was the largest hackathon in the country.

Hacking Grinnell-Style

In the spring of 2014, Grinnell held its first hackathon on campus, and in 2018, students renamed the Grinnell event Hack GC. Like college hackathons elsewhere, Hack GC featured speakers, prizes, little sleep, and lots of entrepreneurial spirit. The goal, as in all hackathons, was to come up with a killer app — a piece of computer software which pushes back the frontiers of what can be done with technology. What made Hack GC a peculiarly Grinnellian event was its focus on creating apps that put service ahead of profit.

For example, during this spring’s Hack GC, Bargman’s team designed an app called Soap Box to give students information about different campus initiatives, the names of their student senators, and candidates for student government positions. Another 2019 Hack GC participant, Devansh Chandgothia ’21, told the S&B about the Food Share app his team developed to enable Grinnellians with extra meal plan credit to share it with those on campus who were going hungry.

The development of apps like these are the reason for the Wilson Center’s ongoing support for the College’s home-grown hackathon. As Wilson Center Program Coordinator Robert Ludwig told the S&B, this support is driven by “[t]he idea that we can use our technology and our ideas to [create] tools to better [the students’] goals.”

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