Dance Marathon Hackathon: Winter 2009
In February, 2009, David Gobaud started a hackathon for social change in partnership with Stanford Dance Marathon. The first event featured 34 hackers programming for 5 nonprofits for 24 hours. For the next two years, Sam King directed the event, expanding it to 15 projects and over 70 hackers per event.
Starting Code the Change: Spring 2011
After running two Code Jams in February 2010 and 2011, Sam realized that an annual event wasn't enough to solve all of the computer science problems in the social sector (especially since people around the nation started hearing about Code the Change and contacting us), that computer scientists wanted more opportunities to help the world, and that he could plan a quality Code Jam in a few weeks rather than a year. With the help of Stanford's Social Entrepreneurship program and many supporters, he founded Code the Change.
Code the Change exists because the problem isn't just Code Jams: we need to help computer scientists use their skills for social change to make social change an integral part of computer science culture. In order to solve problems on a national and global scale, we also needed to form an institution that was larger than a Stanford student group.
Our first Code Jam as Code the Change was a resounding success! We partnered with Code for America in April and worked on a number of projects to open up government data. In May, we partnered with Stanford Liberation Technologies to put on a Code Jam for Egypt, where computer scientists worked on projects requested by activists in Egypt to advance democracy in their country. You can see write ups for these events by the FCC, Code for America, the Stanford Design School, and Cloud to Street here. Due to our streamlined process, we were able to put on 6 Code Jams per year, and because we put on events much more frequently, we were able to do more prototyping and learning about best practices in Code Jams and in computer science and social change.
During this time, Sam brought more people onto the team and started figuring out what kind of an organization Code the Change needed to be. After talking with dozens of people in nonprofits, academia, and corporations, he found that the problem is that there is no organization that unites the space of computer science and social change. As a result, there are no established best practices, and anyone who wants to use computer science for social change has to form relationships and explore on their own. Code the Change needs to spread across the nation, becoming a central hub that enables hundreds of other organizations at the intersection of computer science and social change to flourish. That won't happen until there is a national network of people interested in computer science and social change and until someone shows computer scientists that social change is for everyone. Code the Change will fill that role.
Summer 2011 - Winter 2012
During Summer 2011, Sam started developing our outward-facing presence. He made a website in Drupal and got a logo. Our logo has a lot of hidden meaning in it: you can find the initials of the organization (CtC) in it; it's like a tree, which symbolizes growth and sustainability; it's also like a computer science tree, which is appropriate for our organization.
We have continued to fine-tune everything going forward. Now, most of our events are 8-12 hours rather than 24 hours because it still gets computer scientists the exposure and helps create a culture of social change within computer science without being too hard on programmers' schedules. We call our events Code Jams rather than Hackathons because a "hackathon" evokes a stereotypic, non-socially-motivated, and male-dominated culture of computer science that we're trying to move away from, whereas "Code Jam" is neutral. We have healthy food (rather than mountains of chips and caffeine) and a more collaborative (rather than competitive) atmosphere for similar reasons. Also, we started out very heavy-handed with projects: we would have computer scientists fill out a detailed survey about their skills before the event, and we would match them with projects manually. Now, we let them choose their own projects, which gives them a better experience at the event because they feel like it was their own choice and their own project.
Code the Change's goal isn't just to provide service to nonprofits at our events. If we get 2 computer scientists programming for social change full time, that will create more of an impact than 30 computer scientists programming for 10 hours at 10 events per year. Our Code Jams are a great way to get a foot in the door for computer science and social change, and they're a great way for computer scientists to further develop their skills, but the world needs more than short-term events.
As a result, we started pushing more heavily for long-term relationships. Sam talked with computer scientists about volunteer opportunities, internships and full time jobs programming for social good. He helped nonprofits and social sector organizations get the word out about their job opportunities. Nonprofits consulted Code the Change to figure out what their technology needs really were. Sam made a proposal for a Computer Science and Social Change concentration within the computer science department.
The one piece of advice that we have continually received and rejected is to make Code the Change an exclusive organization. One of the reasons that Teach for America is successful is because they are selective, target elite universities, and have an application process that makes you feel like you're trying to get into college again. That goes against the ethos of Code the Change. We want to show everyone that social change is connected to computer science. If every computer scientist that hears about us wants to get a job programming in the social sector and wants to participate in our events, then we would regard that as a great success. It might be the case that the best way to get computer scientists to demand social change is to reduce the supply, but for the time being, we are trying for a completely open model.
Code the Change got a slew of great media attention! It was featured in Pando Daily, the Palo Alto Weekly, by Tau Beta Pi, the engineering honors society, by Gandi.net, a socially responsible web host and domain registrar, by the Mayor of Palo Alto, and by President Bill Clinton at the Clinton Global Initiative University conference.
We also brought on event directors, web masters, and a campus coordinator to our staff.
We began to experiment with Code the Change Chats, a weekly discussion group. Discussion topics included activities that students were engaging in, a discussion of the curriculum at Stanford, and interesting topics around technology and social change. The weekly discussion group has transformed into our weekly meeting. We also began a speaker series, which has been integrated into weekly meetings as well.
We also applied to teach a student initiated course called "Code the Change: Learn Web Development through Nonprofit Projects." The motivation is that many students want to work on long term projects but don't have free time or an extrinsic motivator. Offering a class addresses both of these issues: the grade is the extrinsic motivator, and the course units are a method of ensuring that students have enough time.
Our efforts at spreading to other campuses have been extremely promising. Our chapters at Berkeley and at Bath College have been very active and successful. We also have many other schools where student leaders have expressed interest but are still in the process of forming a group and starting work, including MIT, Princeton, Tufts, University of Washington, and a dozen others.
This year, we built and launched our project website for managing projects both on and off campus. This marks a shift toward longer term projects that ask for deeper student engagement.
We ran a weekly meeting throughout the year, and continued support for Code Jams on campus. In the fall, our student initiated course was in high demand, and it was an incredible success. We plan to teach the course again in the coming year, likely spring.