Jerusalem tech-sperts ‘Do it Good’ for NGOs

At a 24-hour hackathon, a squad of students and professionals use their skills to help nonprofits improve their web presence

Web and tech pros work at the Do It Good Hackathon (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Web and tech pros work at the Do It Good Hackathon (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Nonprofits seeking to attract donations and support have a problem: How do they attract attention in an age when web surfers are willing to give only few seconds to a site?

For groups that survive on a wing and a prayer, an attractive and effective website is supremely important because it is often the only outlet they have for communicating with potential donors.

Helping such sites out is a perfect way for web design and tech professionals to give back to the community, and on one night in mid-July that is exactly what dozens of them did. The second annual 24-hour “Do It Good” hackathon provided assistance to nearly two dozen NGOs that needed help with their websites in design, backend database work, system administration, and other areas.

The event was held at PICO Jerusalem, a tech workspace that by day hosts small start-ups that rent discount space at the facility. It’s an important resource for any fledgling business in a city where rents are usually sky-high. On “Do It Good” night, PICO was transformed into an archetypical tech party space, with pizza, bagels, beer, and lots of buzz — and a midnight “Werewolf: The Apocalypse” game break, led by Amir Schwartz, a special guest from Google Israel who dropped by to hang out with the hackers.

The event was jointly organized by PICO and SifTech (the Jerusalem Entrepreneurship Club of the Hebrew University Students Union and HU’s Asper Center), along with designers Ayelet Batist and Tal Einat. Batist, the gadfly for the event’s organization, said that this year’s event was organized as a result of last year’s. “NGOs do some great work, but they have few resources,” she told The Times of Israel. “We in the designer and tech community have those resources. Why not use what we have to help them?”

Many groups applied to have their sites fixed up, said Batist, but the 50 or so volunteers could only do so much. “We chose the organizations on the basis of the work they needed done, and the capabilities of the volunteers.”

Although the current staff was able to handle only about two dozen sites, she said, that was twice as many as were helped in the first hackathon. As the event becomes more established, she is sure, even more volunteers with a wider range of skills will participate, and more sites can receive a hackathon facelift.

SifTech helped spread the word at Hebrew University and beyond, said the group’s Inbar Ziv.

“Most of the volunteers were not familiar with the organizations they got matched with before the event, and they certainly were not familiar with their websites,” she said. “They had to first familiarize themselves with the job at hand, whether it was a web redesign, fixing bugs, content development, database work, and so on. Some of the sites needed to be rebuilt from scratch.”

Of the volunteers, said Ziv, some were students and some were professionals, but all felt a need to reach out and help someone. Volunteers working on a site handed it over to another team when they had to move on. Some even stayed the full 24 hours.

The hackathon was an educational process for the volunteers, and for the “clients” as well, said Batist. “Of the volunteers, some don’t want to take on anything too difficult, but many are looking for a challenge. The organizations also need to take chances on the suggestions made by the volunteers, which often require them to embrace unfamiliar technologies and ideas. The bottom line is that everyone is out of their comfort zone. The combination of that on both sides leads to some interesting results.”

Some of the volunteers continue working with the groups after the hackathon as well, said Batist, an added bonus for the NGOs. For everyone involved, though, the hackathon is a unique experience, a chance not only to contribute to the public good, she added, but to have a great experience, meet new people, “and drink a lot of great coffee and beer — the only way to stay awake on a night like this.”

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