Civic hackathon brings awareness, solutions to hunger and homelessness

Hackers from Syracuse to Rochester and Ithaca gathered together to create apps and web services aimed at helping those experiencing homelessness.

Tony Kershaw remembers being homeless twice in his life. The 2005 alumnus of the College of Engineering recalls when he was 10, he had to go to his aunt’s house to take hot showers. He was homeless again while still an undergrad.

Now, he is steadily employed with two jobs and is the creator of the first event in the Northeast that combines technological innovation with homelessness awareness. He called the event Hack Hunger and Homelessness. On Nov. 8 – 9, a diverse group of college students, programming professionals, humanitarians and many who have experienced homelessness in the past gathered at The Tech Garden on Harrison Street in downtown Syracuse for the 24-hour event.

“My goals include authentic relationships being built between technologists and nonprofits,” Kershaw said.

Hackathons usually involve teams coming together for at least 24 consecutive hours to create prototypes of ways technology can help solve problems. The problems addressed at The Tech Garden’s Hunger Hack were all related to hunger and homelessness in Syracuse. They also were eligible to be entered in a larger 30-day virtual civic app hackathon.

Tech enthusiasts gathered at The Tech Garden to brainstorm and pitch ideas. (Photo: Shannon Hazlitt)

Four judges chose Txt2Eat as the best overall hack. It was one of the few that was completely functional during the demos. The app is designed to send information through text messages about where free food can be accessed by the homeless and how food pantries can discover when distributors have donations that need to be picked up. The winner, Stephen Shaffer, was awarded $1,000 to continue developing the app to help a community nonprofit.

The runner-up hack, called #TheNextStep, is an anonymous online community that primarily aims to connect the homeless to individuals that have come out of similar situations successfully.

Kershaw’s inspiration for the event came from running into Mark Horvath, a renowned supporter of the homeless who created a popular online YouTube series called Invisible People, which shared interviews with homeless individuals. Horvath organized a similar civic hackathon in Seattle earlier this year. 

“Tony and I started talking about doing the same sort of thing in Syracuse, but there were some road blocks,” Horvath said. “Tony is super-human for pulling this off.”   

Like at Horvath’s event, registration for Hack Hunger and Homelessness was completely free and open to everyone from programming professionals to those with no experience at all.

The event opened with a panel of seven individuals who work extensively with the homeless, including the heads of a Syracuse food pantry and Rescue Mission. They discussed some of their ideas for how technology could help solve the issues of homelessness and hunger.

Marcene Sonneborn, SU Assistant Professor of Practice at the School of Information Studies, pitched the idea of a bar that individuals could give out when they are asked for money by the homeless. 

The bars would have information about a website where the homeless and humanitarians could go to find out more information to tackle homelessness and those trying to address it.

“This is to help others realize that these homeless people could be them under different circumstances.” Sonneborn said.

Many members of the ten initial teams that formed spent the next 24 hours in the Tech Garden, brainstorming their ideas and building prototypes of solutions to some of the pressing issues of homelessness.

Tech Garden assistants walked around and helped groups if they had any technical issues. 

Five of the ten initial ideas were developed into prototypes presented the following afternoon. Numerous participants addressed the crowded Tech Garden lecture hall with their models after spending the night hacking or snoozing occasionally on the floor or in various chairs throughout the building.

While the hacking was the focus of the event, dozens of goods were collected during a donation drive at the Tech Garden to help those without shelter survive a fast-approaching winter. Donations included blankets, gloves, pillows, and water bottles.  

A pre-screening of the documentary starring Horvath, called @Home, was shown the first evening to give participants a breather from their fervent coding and collaborating. The documentary was about Horvath’s journey across the U.S to tell the stories of those without adequate food and shelter.

Horvath said Hack Hunger and Homelessness was an excellent opportunity for participants to take away not just more practical technical and teamwork skills, but also a feeling of contributing to a greater movement in need of more awareness. 

“I bet six months from now, [participants] might forget some of the apps that were built, but they will remember the stories of homelessness and what was shared about hunger and homelessness right here in Central New York,” Horvath said. “Even before the doors opened on Saturday morning, this was a huge success."

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