Neal Lester, foundation professor of English at Arizona State University

As a team-building exercise, the teams at last year’s Hack for Humanity were given ballons and told to create usable furniture. Some participants later used their creations to grab some rest or man their laptops in comfort.

Mention the word “hackathon,” and the people who don’t look puzzled probably think of a group of geeks locked in a room, huddling over computers and working on codes.

But Neal Lester, foundation professor of English at Arizona State University, has something a lot different from that going on with his fourth annual Hacks for Humanity scheduled Oct. 6-7.

He’s looking for people to gather at the campus to produce things that embody the seven principles of his Humanity 101 initiative – kindness, compassion, integrity, respect, empathy, forgiveness and self-reflection.

Those values, Lester’s course teaches, “transcend political, socioeconomic, geographic and cultural boundaries and are key to any personal and professional success.” Humanity 101 seeks solutions to what he calls “humanity’s most pressing challenges” by engaging in “talking, listening and connecting.”

You don’t have to be a geek to join the 36-hour session of work, games, catered meals, raffles, collaboration, line dancing – with a little sleep thrown in for those who need it.

Lester throws open the university doors to virtually anyone who wants to be part of five-member teams to produce apps, video, websites or whatever else they want to devise. There are also opportunities for people to mentor the teams in two-hour shifts – or to help with logistics.

“This is not about coding,” the Ahwatukee resident said emphatically, stressing the Hack for Humanity is all about figuring out ways to use technology to form a community.

The hackathon itself becomes a community, since it is open to anyone from teenager to senior citizen, men and women, geeks and non-geeks – “anyone who is passionate about using innovation to address local and global issues.” Teens must be accompanied by an adult chaperone.

Last year, of the 150 who participated on a team, the youngest was 13 and the oldest was retired. 

And out of these sessions, some participants go on to achieve some incredible successes.

A 13-year-old girl who participated in Lester’s first hackathon in 2014 developed an encrypted social platform for LGBT teens that won a $50,000 prize and mentorship. She also won numerous awards in other competitions, formed her own company and is bypassing high school graduation to student business management and computer science at the University of Southern California.

The 2014 winning team, ARKHumanity, created a system designed to identify specific tweets containing key phrases that are frequently used by people in crisis who risk self-harm.

From the ice-breaker that opens the event on Saturday morning through the team presentations to judges and the awards ceremony the following Sunday late afternoon, Lester runs the hackathon with a combination of military precision and a party atmosphere.

There is no requirement for participants to stay up all 36 hours either – though some do – and participants can either bring a sleeping bag and sleep in rooms reserved for sacking out, or they can go home for some shut eye and return.

While the work is intense when the teams put their collective brains together to devise and execute a project, there also are catered meals, therapy dogs, yoga, games and even a dance period around midnight. There also are lectures and workshops aimed at encouraging participants to think and act in an innovative and collaborative way to achieve success with their projects.

And the raffles offer some handsome hi-tech prizes like iPads and Google watches.

Lester’s work also has attracted some internationally known sponsors, including Nationwide Insurance Company, Amazon, PayPal and, of course, ASU.

His experiment also has drawn interest from other universities. This year, the University of Texas Dallas will be holding a hackathon simultaneously, and the two will be video-conferencing at various times. Next year, two more universities may collaborate as well, furthering Lester’s goal of building the event into a kind of national brainstorming that is “multi-professional and multigenerational.”

To focus all that brain power Lester is assembling, the teams will be developing their project around one of three themes: parenting, mobility or social justice.

Those themes are deliberately general so that each team has the widest possible parameters for their imagination and talent to run wild.

“Those are topics, not problems,” Lester said. “We’re not telling you what the problem is. If we said ‘homelessness, that would be a problem. We want people to come at these topics from many directions. We’re not giving people challenges but parameters.”

For example, some people may think of parenting from the viewpoint of being parents of young children, while others might think of taking care of elderly parents.

The teams themselves are formed to ensure that each comprises a diverse group, so that there aren’t five engineers on one or five artists on another.

 “It’s an opportunity for people to step outside their usual sphere of influence,” Lester explained.

The mentors who sign up for a couple hours of duty visit with teams, observe and ask questions and make observations, further stimulating the teams’ individual efforts and helping them focus and refine their ideas and projects.

“The mentors are as diverse as the rest of the group,” Lester said. “We need people who are humanists, activists, artists, engineers. We need people who will float around and test the group on what they’re doing.”

As for the volunteers, Lester said, they provide vital logistical support – from helping out at the check-in table, making sure meals arrive on time or making sure work areas don’t get so cluttered that it’s impossible for teams to think.

People who are interested in joining Hacks for Humanity are encouraged to register in advance. Go to hacksforhumanity.io.

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