After working two days straight in St. Louis University’s Chaifetz Arena, teams of 1,200 developers from all over the world came up with their best ideas on how to use technology to tackle homelessness in the St. Louis area.
The competition ended Sunday with the top five teams in each division — youth, collegiate and professional — winning $1 million in prize money. But after two sleepless nights and lots of Red Bull, everyone involved received more than monetary awards.
The software developers, designers and entrepreneurs walked away inspired by how they can use their computer skills to hack a deep-rooted social problem such as homelessness.
Homeless service providers such as shelters and food pantries walked away with $1 million worth of ideas and the possibility of adopting a program that could serve as a prototype for homeless services across the country.
“We are always trying to get money for housing, shelter and meals. We don’t have money to spend on technology,” said Mary Kitley, chief development officer for St. Patrick Center, one of the largest homeless service providers in Missouri. “I know that whatever comes out of today will be much better than what exists, and it is technology that we never could’ve afforded to do on our own.”
The annual software-writing competition, GlobalHack, was founded in 2013 by St. Louis entrepreneurs Gabe Lozano and Drew Winship. They wanted to use hackathons — as the short, intense competitions are called — to tackle real-world problems.
The first four annual competitions had corporate sponsors looking for business solutions. Last year’s GlobalHack V tackled a civic problem for the first time: software that would make municipal courts more accessible.
Early GlobalHacks had $50,000 in prizes with about 150 competitors. This year’s competition drew teams from 33 states and five countries and was sponsored by St. Louis University, St. Patrick Center, Monsanto and a variety of other organizations, making the $1 million prize one of the largest in the country.
“It’s really putting St. Louis on the map from a tech standpoint,” Kitley said.
More than 60 agencies make up the Continuum of Care umbrella that coordinates homeless services in the St. Louis area. Many of the ideas the teams came up with involved ways for the agencies to more efficiently share resources, advice and data; or for those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness to connect with services more quickly and easily.
While many techies entered the competition as teams, some were individuals who were placed in teams that worked together for the first time.
St. Louis University High School junior Eric Schnelker and a fellow classmate were paired with a student who specialized in coding from Clyde C. Miller Career Academy High School, as well as two adults who worked in public health.
Schnelker said he learned a lot about the challenges for those who are homeless, and for the first time, he learned how his computer code could make a difference in their lives.
“It broadened my horizons. It showed me technology can be used not just for mathematic purposes but to solve real-world, meaningful and complex problems,” Schnelker said. “Just seeing everyone work together really changed our worldview.”
The competition was also refreshing for Joe Kurtz, 24, who spends his days creating software that collects and analyzes data for electric cooperatives. “It felt really inspired to use my intelligence and creative ability to help people,” Kurtz said.
GlobalHack Executive Director Matt Menietti said a homeless service agency could hire a technology firm to develop a software program, but that is expensive and only results in one solution. The hackathon produced ideas from 160 teams at little or no cost.
The ideas are community-owned, Menietti explained, kept in an online gallery for anyone to study and build on. And not all of the $1 million was prize money — $250,000 will go toward continuing and carrying out the top ideas.
“What happens on Monday,” Menietti said, “is just as important as what happened over the weekend.”