May 7, 2012; Source: New York Times (AP)

In San Francisco, new ideas sprout like summer wildflowers, particularly when it comes to technology. Recently, a group of techies and community advocates came together for a “hackathon,” a weekend of intense work and little sleep, as part of a nonprofit project called Creative Currency. Engineers and entrepreneurs collaborated with designers and nonprofit leaders to figure out how technology could help improve the lives of people in the city’s Tenderloin and Mid-Market districts, neighborhoods plagued by chronic unemployment, homelessness, and urban blight.

In this context, the word “hacker” is used to describe someone who comes up with a clever solution to a frustrating problem, rather than someone who commits cybercrimes. Hackathons start from the premise that problems are solvable and then work quickly and cheaply to apply technology solutions to address them.

The young urban professionals who participate in hackathons risk coming across as patronizing, or risk failure, if they do not fully understand the community dynamics behind the issues they are trying to address. To pre-empt this problem, Creative Currency engaged community-based organizations throughout the process to define their most pressing issues. Over the weekend, ideas generated included a mobile washing station that homeless people could use to launder their clothes and shower, a tool that pairs workers with short-term employment, and a web-enabled platform that provides real time information on homeless services and shelter availability via mobile phones and kiosks.

Another challenge of hackathons is that many good ideas come to naught. Bursts of creative energy around community problem-solving end up being just that: short, discrete flashes-in-the-pan that fizzle out over the long term. This is particularly true of technological innovations, which often have the lifespan of a fruit fly. When fast-moving technologies require adoption by slow-moving public and community agencies, the results can be discouraging. For instance, a public transit application developed during a San Francisco hackathon last summer promises operational efficiencies to the city’s MUNI system, but it remains unused.

In Silicon Valley, the key to entrepreneurial success is finding an angel investor who has the money and the patience to bankroll your great idea until it can become the next big thing. To match hackathon innovators with do-gooder angels, Creative Currency has mapped out a multistage process that will incubate and develop projects over the summer, culminating in a showcase of the best ideas at the Social Capital Markets Conference (SOCAP) in the fall. SOCAP is attended primarily by social enterprise investors who seek to invest in ideas that provide both a social and a financial return. What remains to be seen is whether any of the Creative Currency innovations will attract the attention of funders in the philanthropic sector, who do not require a financial return, and often have deep connections and long histories of working in disadvantaged communities. It will be interesting to see which, if any, of the Creative Currency projects come to fruition. –John Hoffman