Hack the Change – Solving Global Issues Using Technology

Tech can solve a lot of problems. Lost? Check a map app. Need to buy a hard-to-find item? Shop online. Need to see how long your flight is delayed? Check your airline’s website.

Tech may be able to solve a host of other problems as well. A group of students who belong to the Society for International Development at The University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia is rallying other students to use tech to solve problems for people around the world. This weekend is the second Hack the Change, a 28 hour hackathon designed to harness the power of computer science students to tackle issues around the world.

What Is Hack the Change

Hack the Change brings together university students from around with world with NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) to address issues relating to healthcare, education, conflict resolution, information gathering and other critical problems facing society. I recently spoke with Jordan Landis, a University of Pennsylvania student and Director of Hack the Change, about the upcoming hackathon starting this Friday, September 27 and running 28 hours straight until Saturday, September 28.

“The event was started by two engineering students at the University of Pennsylvania who had been involved with other hackathons. They wanted to create viable change through technology development. My team is carrying on the same goal, we are currently working with a lot of NGO’s who are providing problem statements,” he said.

Landis explained that the problem statements will become the projects that teams will tackle during Hack the Change. The main focus of this year’s hackathon is healthcare, though other issues will be addressed as well.

Who Can Participate

The hackathon is open to university students from around the world. They expect about 115 different programmers, mostly undergraduate students, to participate in the event.

Students from any university around the world can participate.  About 20 students from the University of Botswana will be remotely hacking during the event. “Because we’ll already have the infrastructure set up for remote hacking and software development collaboration, there is definitely an opportunity for students around the world to join us.” Landis explained that by using the expertise of students around the world, hacking teams can bring many perspectives to generate idea for solving these issues.

Landis pointed out that this event is helpful to students who can gain experience work with others, using their creativity and developing their computer programming skills. “The main need is for intermediate and advanced programmers,” said Landis. “We’ve been encouraging students who have an interest in using technology to come out. It’s a great opportunity to use your skill set and to gain experience with app development.  Even first year computer science students can come and work with students who are more experienced.”

Landis said students from Carnegie Mellon, Virginia Tech, Columbia and Boston schools have already registered for the event. About 40 students from Penn have registered. Students work in teams of two to five people and registration is free. “Free registration, free transportation, free food,” said Landis.


Hack the Change is partnering with Megabus who is providing free transportation to the event for registered students. Other sponsors including Google and Vodafone have donated money and items as well as mentors to help facilitate the event.

Sample Hack the Change Projects

The problem statements cover a wide range of subjects and geography:

  • Water282 Zambia has requested help in remotely monitoring water pumps across Africa to ensure people have access to water in remote locations.
  • World Food Programme wants to remotely monitor geographic areas where populations may need food supplies due to climate, agricultural conditions or strife may disrupt food supply chains.
  • University of Botswana would like an app that alerts blood donors and requests donations in areas where blood shortages exist.
  • OpenCurriculum wants a database of Open Educational Resources for grades K-12 so students from all over the world can have access to freely available educational materials.
  • Endless Mobile has requested a web app that pairs businesses who have employment opportunities with local job seekers, beginning with Brazil.
  • University of Pennsylvania would like an app that alerts peacekeepers to areas of civil unrest by aggregating crowdsourced information.

Landis pointed out that although the problem statements involve local issues, tech solutions could be implemented globally.

How Hack the Change Works

The hackathon extends for 28 hours, with the first two hours reserved for the presentation of problem statements and  for teams to brainstorm and decide which problem they want to solve. The next 24 hours are devoted to hacking. When the hacking is finished, teams will present their solutions to a panel of judges who have experience in international development and technology.

The top three teams will receive cash prizes:

  • $1000 first place
  • $700 second place
  • $350 third place

To register or find out more about the event you can visit the Hack the Change website or email Landis at hackthechange@gmail.com.

Your Thoughts

Do you like the idea of technology addressing the world’s problems? Have you heard of hackathons? Are you excited about the opportunities these student have to make a difference in the world? Do you know any students who may want to join Hack the Change? Let us know in the Comments section below!

* University of Pennsylvania image from Wikimedia Commons

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  1. Jeevan Jacob John says

    As much I like the idea of using technology to solve the problem, we must be very cautious. Technology has helped to solve many problems in the past, but it also created a lot of problems (but, we don’t seem to learn from our history, do we?). It is good to see projects such as these; I just hope we don’t end up creating (or help to create) new problems.

    I am not a programmer or else I could have participated. Anyways, good luck to those students :)

    Thanks for sharing the news, Carolyn :)

  2. Pramod says

    Hi Carolyn !
    Thanks for sharing this info with us .This is an excellent idea of grouping techies with good programming skills to help others who wanna improve their coding skills as it’s very important for a computer science students to have good skills if they wanna work at a higher level. I’d like to see our university do the same as it will help to brighten the future of many students .

    • says

      Hi Pramod, Yes, you have a great point. These students are not only giving their time, they’re gaining real world experience. Their skills will be honed by the hackathon, both by working with fellow students, but also by receiving guidance from mentors during the event.

      I hope your university is able to sponsor a hackathon too, Pramod, so that your fellow students and the world can gain from the experience. :-bd
      Carolyn Nicander Mohr recently published this awesome post..How to Get the Most for Your Used TechMy Profile

  3. Emmanuel MBA says

    Hello Carolyn, how are you? This sounds serious and I hope one can still enter to participate in the Hack the Change’s hackathon. Kindly keep us updated and thank you, and please what’s your reply to my question?
    Emmanuel MBA recently published this awesome post..Dangers of Quick MBA (Online MBA Programs)My Profile

  4. Mitch says

    Hey Carolyn,
    I do like the sound of this, sounds like a great event but a too good to be true cause,
    don’t get me wrong, i do encourage allot such events but i fear that big sponsors only organize such events to steal ideas from creative young students for profit.
    Big IT companies organize such events all the time, they pay small fees like 1000$ for the winner but they steal tons of apps ideas from creative minds, or, if the winning app goes viral guess where the major profit goes !
    i really wish one day technology can save our problems without the limitation of money!
    Many thanks and Best wishes!
    Mitch recently published this awesome post..Loading, Web Design Lebanon, full-service marketing and advertising companyMy Profile

    • says

      Hi Mitch, Well, I hadn’t thought of that aspect of hackathons, but this one was organized by University of Pennsylvania students, not a tech company. Tech companies such as Google do sponsor the hackathon but my optimistic side likes to think that they will be there to recruit top tech students and perhaps be inspired by tech solutions to global problems.
      Carolyn Nicander Mohr recently published this awesome post..edX – Get Schooled by Top Universities for Free!My Profile