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Random Hacks of Kindness

Random Hacks of Kindness is a conglomeration of technologists and community-sector professionals whose mission is to design tech for good. Alex McMillan attended their "hackathon" in Melbourne last month to find out what they're all about.

The first thing I notice on walking into the Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) lair is the level of concentration in the room. Around 50 volunteers who have given up their weekend to be here are fixated on their computer screens.

This is my first "hackathon", and I really have no idea what I'm seeing. Cal Foulner, the group's community manager, ushers me over with a big smile and explains.

"A hackathon is pretty simple, really. If you take someone who knows tech, put them in a room with a problem, and throw in some pizza, then they naturally come up with a tech solution."

What makes RHoK's approach unique is that participants do it all "for good", rather than to make money from their solutions. "At RHoK, the volunteers are motivated to solve problems presented to them by those working in the community sector," Cal explains

As the day progresses, the tension in the room ebbs and flows. Occasionally there's a loud cheer, or a group gathers together over one screen, chatting in hushed tones.

They're working on problems brought to them by eight "changemakers" - people who work or volunteer in the community sector and have found a gap that needs filling. The committee looks for "Goldilocks" problems: not too big, but big enough to be inspiring, and not too small, but small enough to solve in 48 hours (or so).

The issues in the room today affect children in protection, women who have recently migrated to Australia, and those looking to fulfil their life goals, among others. The changemakers are alight with enthusiasm, switching from furrowed brow to beaming grins every time a programmer solves another problem.

Martina Clark is a changemaker whose team is building a unique support platform for carers of cancer patients, an idea that came to her after she'd struggled through her own experience of supporting a friend. She says the technologists are the best part of RHoK. "They're so enthusiastic, and we're all on the same page. They have some experience among them with cancer care, which makes it really special for me."

The RHoK 'Changemakers' tell us what they're doing and why they chose RHoK.

Here on her fourth hack, Jen McConachy from Berry Street, a Victorian child and family services organisation, has learned this lesson. "As someone who isn't very tech-savvy, you'll need to sit with a little bit of discomfort, but just go with it. They're incredibly experienced people."

Jen joined the RHoK fold seeking a way to record information on relatives and friends of children in the child protection system. "For me, the big lesson was learning to define what I wanted, and put that out to the hackers and asking them what they could offer."

Cal emphasises, "It's important that changemakers stay the expert of the problem and don't try and provide the solution - that's the hacker's job."

As the day draws to a close, each group shows off their end product to a panel of judges, as well as to the tired volunteers who are eager to see what others have been working on. Each group has achieved a huge amount in such a small time - I'm simply inspired.

Committee member Eddie Chapman says, "We used to make it more competitive, like a traditional hackathon. Now we try to recognise that everyone's created something amazing."

I ask Cal how community organisations can get involved and he perks up - the committee is always hunting for new changemakers, he says. "A lot of charities come to us with a myriad of problems to solve. We work closely with them to make sure they develop a really clear problem statement so they're ready for the hackathon and we can get to work on it straight away."

RHoK runs hackathons each year in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Bendigo and Ipswich. If your organisation has got a "Goldilocks" problem, or if you want to talk to the RHoK team about how you can work with them, take a look at their FAQs or get in touch.