How Hackathons Could Save The World

Earlier this month, LinkedIn held its third annual LinkedIn Intern Hackday. The popular event, which offers the winner a $10,000 scholarship, is packed with young people hopped up on caffeine, struggling to finish an app before the 24-hour deadline. 

There are a lot of silly concepts, as you’d expect from college-age interns. A program for “creeping” on your friends (or strangers) by snapping hidden shots of them while you ostensibly make a phone call. A virtual door sock to advise your roomies to stay away for a while. 

And every now and then, out comes an app that could change the world. 

Check Out Checkup

Nineteen-year-old Sam Bodanis came away with second place for Checkup, his iOS app that aims to detect an onset of Parkinsons disease in a smart phone user’s voice. It was inspired by an article he’d recently read about breakthroughs in treating Parkinsons through voice algorithms. 

An intern at high-tech healthcare engineering firm Aditazz, Bodanis is intensely interested in using technology to treat disease. But this project was so “menacingly large” that he didn’t consider tackling it until the Hackday came around. 

“I kind of used the hackathon as an opportunity to build an idea I’ve been playing around a lot,” he said. “The LinkedIn Hackday was an opportunity to have 24 hours uninterrupted to make a start on it and have something to show at the end.”

Hackathons aren’t serious events. They’re the tech world's take on a social event, where everyone stays up all night, downs way too much caffeine, and alternates hard work with naps and impromptu 2 AM ping-pong battles. However, they may have serious implications for how we tackle our biggest problems, simply because of that lack of intensity.

Want Big Ideas? Turn Down The Pressure

Hackathons are becoming birthing pods for some of the tech world’s brightest new ideas simply because the stakes are so low. When the goal is just to have something to show for yourself, it’s easy to try and tackle big ideas and not worry about failing. When there’s no pressure to build the Next Big Thing, that’s exactly when the Next Big Thing gets built.

“Definitely people are moving toward that,” Bodanis said. “General startup culture has become so much bigger that as opposed to coming up with products during hackathons, people are beginning to come up with prototypes that could become potential companies.”

As the tech world recognizes the hackathon's power, people are increasingly turning to them to solve a variety of problems. The hosting company can recruit new talent or find ways to solve problems it regularly deals with. Even the White House held a hackathon this year in order to brainstorm ways to use its new API. There are also niche hackathons for lawyers, pet lovers, and foodies.

“Our goal with LinkedIn Intern Hackday is to invite outsiders ‘in’ our halls, so we can unleash the creative genius of the best and brightest interns around the globe,” said LinkedIn brand manager Florina Xhabija Grosskurth. “There were entertaining hacks as well as hacks, like Sam's, which tackled difficult real world problems.”

Nobody expects a group of interns or amateur coders to come up with solutions for our most tenacious tech problems. Which is why they’re the ones who just might solve them.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons