Geeks Without Bounds

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Geeks Without Bounds (GWOB) supports humanitarian open source projects through a combination of hackathons and an accelerator program which takes promising projects through six months of mentorship towards sustainability. GWOB also engages in a range of educational programs aimed at increasing diversity in the technology workforce, helping technologists better understand humanitarian issues, and helping those who work in humanitarian fields learn more about technology.

The organization has a strong focus on appropriate technologies and codesign principles. Many of the technologies which GWOB works with are intended to be deployed in low-resource situations, whether during a disaster or in less developed countries, and therefore need to work within the restrictions of those environments. Other tools may be intended for use in developed countries, but by those with various disadvantages within those countries, and so the technology must take into account considerations such as language barriers, reading ability, and lack of internet access. The issues of environmentalism, fuel use, and potential side effects of any new technology are also concerns, and every effort is made to ensure that projects that GWOB works on will improve upon the environmental impacts of any previous solution that may be replaced.

Hackathons

Hackathons are events, usually held over a weekend, that bring programmers, designers, engineers, and subject matter experts together to work on a set of themed challenges. GWOB has organized hackathons in the Random Hacks of Kindness series, the Everyone Hacks model, and as part of the International Space Apps Challenge. GWOB has also been contracted by various organizations including Partnership for A Healthier America, HP, and Netsuite to run hackathons on their behalf.

GWOB has developed a system for running hackathons which encourages greater diversity among participants, engages non-technologists in more of the workflow of the weekend, and rewards cross-team cooperation over direct competition. These events include educational talks at the beginning of the weekend, and sometimes during breaks. The intent of the talks is to improve the quality of outcomes during the weekend, but many attendees cite the learning aspect of the weekend as one of the top reasons to participate in a GWOB-run hackathon. The GWOB hackathon model has also been successfully used in school and university settings as a learning and assessment tool for science, general ICT and cyber security courses.

As of August 2014, GWOB has run more than 50 separate hackathon events around the world.

The Accelerator Program

Since GWOB has no fixed location, and operates on a small budget, the accelerator model that has evolved over several rounds revolves around bi-weekly meetings with each team over Google Hangouts. Most meetings include one or more volunteer mentors who can help the team with one area of concern. Examples of mentorship areas include legal containers for open source projects, IP law for open source projects, fundraising, technical help for engineering challenges, security concerns, and codesign principles. Whenever possible, the mentor meetings are recorded and posted to YouTube for the benefit of others.

History

Geeks Without Bounds was founded in 2010 by Johnny Diggz and Willow Brugh as a fiscally sponsored[1] project of The School Factory. Immediately, hackathons became the major focus of the organization as a method to find new solutions to ongoing problems in disaster response and humanitarian aid. Some of the solutions created at GWOB-organized hackathons were tested at an assortment of disaster response drills to varying degrees of success.

By early 2012 it became clear that hackathons alone were not going to create the solutions that were needed in the field. Two main problems existed:

  1. Projects created at hackathons often lose momentum quickly after the event and
  2. Technologies created in a weekend often lack deeper insight into the needs of the end users of those tools.

At this point, the accelerator was created to take a few of the best projects from hackathons and give them the support to grow beyond the hackathon weekend’s experiments.

Organization

Geeks Without Bounds currently has three full time employees who function as peers in a leadership team. The titles on their business cards are just to help outsiders to know which issues to direct towards which individual, based on each person’s skill set and prefered duties.

Willow Brugh is responsible for connecting people together, herding hackers, and making sure that everyone in the organization does what they say that they were going to do.

Lindsay Oliver is the go-to person for organizing events. She is also the master writer of the team, and in general, if it’s published by GWOB in some way, she most likely either wrote it or edited it.

Lisha Sterling is responsible for ongoing organizational development and fundraising. She’s also the code-and-server-fixer-upper.

GWOB also has an advisory board that meets semi-regularly to discuss the general direction of the organization and give advice to the leadership team. The advisory board also votes on prospective accelerator teams.

Note

  1. In the United States, fiscal sponsorship is a formal arrangement in which a federal 501(c)(3) public charity functions as an umbrella organization for a related organization that may lack tax exempt status. This allows a small group to seek grants and solicit tax-deductible donations under the sponsor's exempt status with a lower overall administrative cost.