College students from around the country sit in Duke University’s Gross Hall auditorium with backpacks and duffel bags scattered around them.

They are ready to spend the whole day and night coding new software at the second annual HackDuke. While most hackathons involve programmers competing to create new technology in a short amount of time, this event has a twist on the traditional approach.

At HackDuke, the students form teams to create real solutions for local nonprofits, not just technology for a business purpose or personal gain. In fact, none of them will win any prize money. Instead, the winners of the event choose a nonprofit to receive donations in their name.

A little history

HackDuke co-coordinator Ashley Qian said this year’s two-day event, held on campus this past weekend, was the first of its size regionally to bring together college students and non-profit experts to solve real social issues plaguing communities. Its purpose was to allow students of all majors to experience what its like to build a product from scratch and to use it to make a difference.

The organizers did not know what kind of turnout to expect initially—their first event, last spring’s hackBlue, was a conventional hackathon and drew more than 80 students from the three major universities in the area: NC State, UNC Chapel Hill and Duke. But this year’s event drew 300 and from states like Maryland, Georgia, California, Pennsylvania and Arizona.

Why would so many college students come here to give their time and skills without a reward? “They come to learn,” Qian says of the students. “HackDuke is very much exploring the intersection between technology and social good. We need developers and nonprofit experts to meet each other so they can work together to make something awesome happen.”

Back at the event…

Twelve nonprofit experts give speeches to the hackers at the beginning of the event, in which they share specific issues their organizations face. Three main categories are presented: Health and wellness, inequality and education. Bryan Gilmer, Director of Marketing and Development for Urban Ministries of Durham, tells the students how hard it is to communicate with their clients. Gilmer challenges them to come up with an “elegant solution” for allowing homeless people to check in and out of their shelter, as well as find out if there is room for the night.

In another session, Travis Starkey, manager of Teacher Leadership Development at Teach for America, prompts the programmers to find a way to acclimate new teachers in the community. All of the brainstorming sessions center around problems these nonprofits are experiencing right now; they need technology solutions to help achieve their full impact on society.

The students take what they learn and start working. Over the next 24 hours, they collaborate in teams and use whatever is at their disposal, including shared hardware and 35 tech mentors, to form various web interfaces, apps and phone call systems.

What they came up with

By the next day, they have their laptops up on rows of tables, sharing fully-functional projects. One team made up of UNC students tackled the Urban Ministries of Durham’s issue by creating a phone-based system clients can use to check on workshops and bed availability. Team member David Spanos admits to only getting a few hours of sleep, but says there was “lots of camaraderie” to keep him going. Spanos also got a mood boost during the late-night Nerf gun war where he captained Team Facebook.

Another team with Duke students programmed a website called Dripp. The website lets people exchange their money for the online currency ‘dripps,’ which are then dispersed to the nonprofit organizations of their choice in one central location. The site aims to remove barriers people usually have toward donating, such as the time and effort it takes to research organizations and submit payments.

A team of University of Maryland students took on mental health by developing Peak, an application which logs daily personal high points,or ‘peaks’, in picture form. When the user is having a particularly tough day, he or she can cycle back through pictures of good times. “It’s so you can recognize the best moment of every day,” says team member Udaiveer Virk. “Every day something good happens.”

After judges make their rounds to evaluate the 46 team projects, hackers gather back in the auditorium for the closing ceremony. Finalist teams present their innovations one more time, and then the awards are announced for each of the focus areas.

Alex Browne, a senior at Duke University, wins the grand prize for the inequality track. He created Bullhorn, a system which uses a database of client phone numbers to broadcast important messages from Urban Ministries of Durham. The $500 award is given to UMD to cover the cost of servers for the project implementation.

Moving HackDuke forward

Browne says he is “already talking to [contacts] at UMD. I’m really excited.” All of the winning projects will receive support from Indiegogo to launch funding campaigns so they can continue to develop and potentially launch. To really make a social impact, these solutions will need fine tuning and financial resources.

Qian admits this has been a challenge in the past. Teams get excited about their projects during the hackathon, but then school and other pressures sidetrack them. With the help of some financial backing, however, they might stay motivated.

After all, the idea behind HackDuke is much larger than a weekend of brainstorming and programming. “I really want to get college students integrated in their community,” says Qian. “How can we improve our community? How can we make it a better city? [We need to] work with the Mayor, and work with regular citizens of Durham to voice their concerns.”