Students utilize technology for social good through Hack4Impact


Photo courtesy of Varun Munjeti

Students collaborate as part of the Hack4Impact chapter at the University. The organization helps connect students with nonprofits through technology

By Sam Schrage, Staff writer

When Alvin Wu met Hack4Impact co-founders Ali Altaf and Dhruv Maheshwari, he was inspired to bring the organization to Champaign-Urbana.

Founded at the University of Pennsylvania, Hack4Impact strives to connect student developers with nonprofits to enact social change through the use of technology. With six new chapters established last year, Hack4Impact is expanding its reach worldwide by developing software, primarily web and mobile applications, that establish a technical solution to nonprofits’ needs.

Wu, senior in Engineering and co-director of Hack4Impact, was particularly interested in the ways Hack4Impact was able to utilize technology for social impact.

“There’s this disconnect between nonprofits and technology because a lot of nonprofits aren’t utilizing technology to its full potential because they don’t know about it or don’t have enough resources to invest in technology,” Wu said. “I believe this whole idea of social impact and technology needs to be more intertwined in the future to propel nonprofits to do even more social good.”

Along with the social change the software will bring about, Hack4Impact is also beneficial to students who are able to gain real-world experience and sharpen valuable web design, development and management skills.

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    “We want to build things that are a custom solution that will provide a lot of value to nonprofits. We want to make sure it’s technically challenging for students and provides an opportunity for technically advanced students to share their knowledge with younger members,” Varun Munjeti, senior in Engineering and co-director of Hack4Impact, said.

    In its second semester on campus, Hack4Impact is already utilizing technology to influence social change. Set to launch in mid-2018, MapStories was created by a team of eight University students for the Neighborhood News Bureau located in Tampa Bay, Florida. MapStories was developed as an educational tool to help the newsroom share local history and African American culture in a user-friendly way.

    The web application includes a variety of features including a map relative to the local area, a timeline to display events throughout history and an info panel displaying pictures, videos, stories, links and other related material.

    The developing team included a technical lead, product manager, software developers and designers. Shreyas Mohan, freshman in Engineering, served as a software developer for the project, assisting with the development of the MapStories website.

    “This was the first full software project I completed, and I learned what goes into building a website from scratch,” Mohan said. “I was able to apply the things I learned in class to make something that will benefit real people.”

    This semester, Hack4Impact plans to partner with four to five nonprofits including Love Without Boundaries, an international nonprofit that provides education, nutrition, medical and foster care to orphaned and vulnerable children. Hack4Impact will develop a web application to help facilitate the matching of tutors with children in Cambodia who will help the children learn English.

    Although Hack4Impact has recently partnered with national and international nonprofits, they also hope to help local nonprofits as well.

    “As we start to work with more local nonprofits, we hope that more nonprofits will hear about us and become a key figure in helping Champaign-Urbana nonprofits do more for the community itself. Nationally, Hack4Impact wants to become a resource to nonprofits for project help, impact and growth and how they can use technology to achieve these things,” Wu said.

    One of the reasons why Hack4Impact has attracted so many students across the nation is the sense of mentorship and community its members experience as part of the organization. One of the programs the organization implemented last year was called pair programming, in which older members mentored and taught younger members skills that would apply to future projects and within their job field.

    “It’s very rewarding to help someone learn and be able to see them contribute a lot and grow from their experiences with the organization. Teaching others really keeps you on your toes and makes sure that you don’t have any gaps in your knowledge. It holds you accountable, and in that way, you also grow,” Munjeti said.

    Aside from the program’s educational value, pair programming also allowed the group’s members to bond. This semester, Wu wants to implement more programs like that to create a stronger sense of community within the club.

    “One of our values is our focus on our organization’s community. We want Hack4Impact not only to be an engineering organization but a social organization as well,” Wu said.

    To students, it’s the organization’s sense of community and lasting impact that inspired them to join. The projects they develop not only allow them to learn, but also give them meaningful experiences and opportunities to contribute to something beyond this campus.

    “Hack4Impact is a club that makes software products for non-profits to make the world a better place. Most other clubs that make products don’t have a direct impact on the community and aren’t used a few months after they are finished. The products H4I (makes) have a lasting impact,” Mohan said.

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