San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Hack4Good pits programmers against real-world problems

When we think of selfless do-gooders, computer programmers don’t often come to mind. But this weekend, scores of software whizzes will descend on San José for the Hack4Good event, a global “hackathon” that aims to solve real-world problems using digital code.

San José is one of numerous host cities, from Philadelphia to Kathmandu. The local theme: Costa Rica’s patchy recycling system.

“It’s not limited to recycling,” said Gabriel Esquivel, a professional Javascript developer who also is a Hack4Good organizer and mentor. “If you have any idea that benefits society, you can do that.”

As the name implies, a hackathon is all about endurance: Teams of programmers gather in a specific space, type code, build software, and then present their work. Such events have become popular around the world and are often extremely competitive. But Hack4Good has more altruistic aspirations.

“In many [hackathons], you build a project, you get a prize, and hopefully get funded,” Esquivel said. “Recycling in Costa Rica is a logistical issue. We are going to try to find a solution for that.”

To this end, 50 people are expected to attend Hack4Good, including developers, designers and social media mavens, and even more people may participate remotely.

The action begins Friday at 7 p.m. and concludes with formal presentations on Sunday afternoon. For participants who are physically present at Hack4Good, the event will take place at the Quirós Tanzi Foundation. Most participants are either Costa Ricans or North Americans; some received invitations, others found the hackathon through social media. The goal is to produce applications that will actually be put into practical use.

The big question is this: How could data on a screen possibly affect a gritty, three-dimensional problem like recycling? Hack4Good organizers suggest that participants’ programs will help systematize recycling and make ordinary Costa Ricans aware of initiatives that already exist. But how they do that will be determined over the course of 48 grueling hours.

The very concept of “hacking” has evolved since it became popular in the late 1980s. No longer the exclusive domain of high-tech bank robbers and identity thieves, hacking now takes on a much broader definition: using innovative computer programs to find revolutionary solutions.

“Hacking means making things work in a different way than they were originally conceived,” Esquivel said. As for himself, Esquivel pursued programming only three and a half years ago, almost by accident. “Initially I wanted to build a website and I couldn’t. I realized I like to build things, and you can reach people and make things better.”

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