7th annual Hacks for Humanity goes virtual, attracts international participation

October 30, 2020

A biomedical engineering student in Arizona, a designer in New York, a nonprofit professional in Canada and a high school student in Israel wouldn’t typically find themselves in the same place at the same time before 2020. But this year, at Arizona State University's Project Humanities’ seventh annual Hacks for Humanity event, diverse groups like this worked together virtually to create innovative tools to advance solutions to big social challenges.

From Oct. 9–11, 59 competitors of all ages and backgrounds logged on from 14 countries around the world: Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Peru, Nigeria, Kazakhstan, Israel, India, Ghana, Canada, the United States, Uganda, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan. Within the U.S., competitors participated from six different states: Arizona, California, Indiana, Illinois, New Jersey, New York and Texas. For the first time in its seven-year history, Arizona State University's Project Humanities' Hacks for Humanity event went virtual this year, attracting international participation from 14 countries around the world. Download Full Image

Although Project Humanities has always had an international vision, Neal Lester, professor of English at The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and director of Project Humanities, said the shift to virtual programming in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic allowed them to connect with global audiences like never before. On night one, participants were randomly assigned to teams, in contrast to typical hackathons, where teams are often preassembled. Among them were high school and college students, business professionals, graphic designers, humanists, computer programmers and developers. The formation of random teams is by design, with the intention of fostering interdisciplinary collaboration.

“With Hacks for Humanity we're interested in bringing people into new conversation and having them think differently when they leave our events,” Lester said. “When they come in, they know no one and nothing, and they don't get to choose their teams. But by the time they leave, sometimes they leave with friendships, they leave with some new ideas and they leave with a sense of accomplishment — look at what we've done together.”

Teams communicated primarily through Zoom and Slack, and were supported throughout the event by a multitude of mentors, volunteers and Project Humanities staff. The objective for the teams was to work together to create a product or tool that addressed an issue relating to one of three tracks; aging, safety or justice. In addition, products had to embody three of the seven principles in Project Humanities’ Humanity 101 movement — empathy, compassion, respect, integrity, forgiveness, kindness and self-reflection. 

Building a global community virtually

Mohit Doshi, a senior at ASU majoring in computer science and a third-time participant of the event, first attended Hacks for Humanity in 2017. The experience sparked his interest in hackathons; he’s since participated in more than 25 hackathons across Arizona and the U.S.

“For me, Hacks for Humanity really opened my eyes to hackathon culture,” Doshi said. “Seeing how people can ideate, develop, prototype and demo something in a span of 36 or 48 hours is always so amazing. Because of COVID-19, doing events like these is a good break from my routine and also a great way to meet people.”

The Project Humanities staff incorporated fun and engaging ways for participants to make connections around the world including an at-home scavenger hunt, a breakfast show-and-tell, a Bob Ross-inspired Microsoft Paint challenge, a game night, slideshow karaoke as well as other presentations from entrepreneurs and experts around the country.

Rachel Sondgeroth, Project Humanities program coordinator, was the main architect of the online experience, creating all of the technical blueprints and leading the IT team. Sondgeroth said she was not only pleasantly surprised by the high-level of international participation but also by the way individuals bonded in-spite of differing time zones.

“Initially, the Project Humanities team feared that hosting the event online would take away from the community-building aspect of the event,” she said. “Luckily, we were proven wrong. We saw that the teams actually found a way to bond with one another as they worked through their projects. The small events and activities helped build an overall sense of community and by the end, we felt like a little family. I am glad we were able to preserve that aspect.” 

Diverse teams creating innovative solutions

On the final night of the event, a panel of judges selected seven out of 11 teams to present five-minute live pitches to share their product or concept. 

In first place was Whole Heart, an app that seeks to empower potential domestic abuse victims and identify if their relationship is abusive, connect them to services, provide ongoing support and give them the ability to record incidents of abuse in a digital journal. The app was created with safe and secure access in mind, with built-in “camouflaging” features including the ability to change the app icon to make it appear as a yoga or cooking app.

The winning team consisted of four members; Juliet Addo, an ASU graduate student studying biomedical engineering in Arizona; Lauren Dukes, a user experience/interface designer based out of New York; Shitangshu Roy, a nonprofit professional based out of Canada; and Noam Zaks, a high school student from Israel.

“We started out with lots of projects under each topic. Eventually we ended up agreeing to focus on domestic violence because we recognized that there had been an increase in domestic violence since quarantine began,” Addo said. “It’s something that is going to gradually increase if nothing is done about it. So we were drawn to that because we’re passionate about it and we all believe everyone should have a safe space where they can thrive.”

Although the team is unsure of what the future holds for Whole Heart, they said they ultimately left the experience with new friendships as well as a deeper appreciation for cross-discipline collaboration with a diverse group of individuals.

“I really do think that there is power in focusing on diversity in problem-solving and in conversations around issues that relate to all of us,” Dukes said. “Everyone is affected by aging, safety and justice. I love that Project Humanities is trying to bring in as many people as possible to come up with the best solutions possible. The event isn't necessarily focused on coming up with the coolest technology, instead it’s about coming up with the best solution to an existing problem.”

Runner-ups included: Night Light, an app where users can stay safe by tracking and reporting their whereabouts to friends and family; Elder Aid, an app for older adults to easily find and access resources and benefits; and Good Neighbors, an app that facilitates volunteer food delivery services for people in vulnerable communities such as older adults and immunocompromised people.

Winning participants were awarded $10,000 in cash prizes through the support of sponsors including State Farm, Silicon Valley Bank, Come Rain or Shine Foundation, Amazon Tempe, ASU Smart City Cloud Innovation Center, ASU J. Orin Edson Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute, and Celtic Property Management.

Finding strength, resiliency and connection in difficult times

Lexie Gilbert, a PhD student at ASU studying linguistics and applied linguistics and a graduate teaching associate for ASU’s writing programs, served as one of the judges for the event. Gilbert said she feels events like these not only help bridge the gap between the humanities and technical fields like computer science, but they also highlight new ways to communicate.

“People from all over the world were able to attend the hackathon and meet and work with others. What a mental, physical, emotional, communicative exercise — to be put into groups with people from all over the world with the goal to create some meaningful product,” Gilbert said. “There are new ways of being in the world together, and that’s kind of exciting. Like many other events happening right now, Hacks for Humanity reminds us of all the ways we’re isolated from other people, but also the warmth, resilience and connection we’re still capable of.”

Although pulling off the event was no small task, Shana Tobkin, Project Humanities coordinator, said it showed the Project Humanities team the power of virtual human connection.  

“I learned that despite not being able to interact face-to-face, people can still connect with each other in meaningful ways,” Tobkin said. “While this year has been challenging for everyone, particularly with the increase in isolation, this event demonstrated that we can still form meaningful relationships and create things together that benefit the social good.” 

Looking toward the future, the Project Humanities team said they hope to offer a hybrid form of Hacks for Humanity in 2021, given the high-level of international interest at this year's event.

Emily Balli

Manager of marketing and communications, New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences

ASU professor awarded Davis Center Book Prize

October 30, 2020

Following the 1989-1990 fall of communism in Eastern Europe, new prodemocratic governments were formed after free elections. However, over the following 30 years, there has been a “rising support for the populist right in Eastern Europe.”

What has caused this rise in radical right parties in Eastern Europe? Is it fueled by prejudice and xenophobia or as a reaction to ascending minority groups? Download Full Image

Arizona State University Associate Professor Lenka Bustikova’s new book "Extreme Reactions: Radical Right Mobilization in Eastern Europe" takes a deep dive into these topics.

The book was recently named as the winner of this year’s Harvard University Davis Center Book Prize awarded by the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES). The award, which will be presented at the ASEEES annual convention on Nov. 7, is given “annually for an outstanding monograph published on Russia, Eurasia, or Eastern Europe in anthropology, political science, sociology, or geography in the previous calendar year.”

Bustikova, who is part of ASU’s School of Politics and Global Studies, spoke with ASU Now about her recent book.

Question: Why did you choose to focus specifically on the radical right mobilization in Eastern Europe? How might it differ from Western Europe or the United States?

Answer: I was deciding on a dissertation topic in graduate school. My adviser, Herbert Kitschelt, wrote a prominent book about the rise of the far right in Western Europe. At that time, most of the scholarship on Eastern Europe viewed unreformed communist parties as the major threat to democratic consolidation. I wanted to shift attention to the rising threat of nationalism, which was simmering under the surface. At that time, it was an understudied and a marginal topic. 

There are two major differences between Western Europe/United States and Eastern Europe. Far right mobilization in Western Europe — and to some degree in the U.S. — is associated with immigration. In Eastern Europe, the out-group is composed of minorities settled in for centuries with full voting rights. 

The second difference relates to the pace of minority accommodation. In the West, expansion of minority rights has been a long, protracted process. In the East, the ascendance of minorities to power and recognition coincided with democratic liberalization in the early 1990s and was almost instantaneous.

Q: You define a radical right party as a "single-issue party that occupies a niche, extreme position in the party system, and is either nationalistic and/or socially conservative.” What do you think is behind the rise of these types of political groups?

A: The short answer is minority accommodation. I view radical right parties as a largely reactive phenomenon. In the book, I detail the process by which the acquisition of political power and demand for rights by ascendant minority groups precipitates a backlash. Radical right parties capitalize on feelings of discontent towards politically assertive minorities and with the governmental policies that yield to their demands. Variation in how minorities are accommodated by the government explains the electoral successes and failures of radical right parties. 

Q: The focus of this book was limited to postcommunist democracies. What makes those countries more vulnerable than longer-established democracies?

A: New democracies are more vulnerable than old democracies, but their citizens also understand what is at stake. Established democracies have many advantages, such as institutionalized party systems, wealth, entrenched rule of law, and independent civic society organizations. Reliance on advantages can result in complacency, however. Global tectonic shifts are now more observable in the East. In my view, it is a preview of what is about to unravel in the West: collapse of the traditional left and right political divisions, instantaneous responsiveness driven by new forms of communication and volatility. Nonetheless, crisis also results in innovation, such as the emergence of alternative forms of representation, new forms of civic participation and new strategies to facilitate democratic resilience. 

Q: Do you think that the growth in radical right parties endangers the democratic institutions they are in?

A: Yes and no. It can be a safe outlet for grievances and can force mainstream parties to pay more attention to neglected issues. Radical right parties are born in political convergence, but, once they emerge, they contribute to polarization. They endanger democracies if their radical agenda is weaponized by radicalized mainstream parties. Niche parties are too small and politically weak to subvert political regimes. The danger originates from the mainstream parties.

Matt Oxford

Assistant Director of Strategic Marketing and Communications, College of Global Futures