Anne-Marie Elias on why Vibewire is crowdfunding a hackathon to tackle homlessness: “We live in Sydney but it’s all around us like we’re in a third world country”


Vibewire board member Anne-Marie Elias. Source: Supplied.


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The tech industry’s world of free beer, ping pong tables, beanbags and alpacas seems a far cry from the realities of sleeping on the streets, homeless and huddled against the winter cold, yet the two worlds will meet if Sydney-based youth co-working space Vibewire successfully crowdfunds its Hack4Homelessness hackathon.

Vibewire’s Hack4Homelessness hackathon hopes to bring Australia’s leading students, social entrepreneurs and startups together to tackle the rising rates of homelessness across Australia.

Annie-Marie Elias is a board member for Vibewire and an Australian startup commentator. She says the rising rates of homelessness in Sydney — New South Wales has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the country, according to Vibewire — inspired her and Vibewire president board Gavin Heaton to take action.

“We watched the narrative around Martin Place and homelessness unfold; no one can escape it, no matter how much money they spend on it [the homelessness problem] it’s getting worse and worse,” Elias tells Startupsmart.

“We live in Sydney but it’s all around us like we’re living in a third world country, and people in the tech community don’t know what to do to make a difference.

“We thought, let the tech community have a go and see what happens when people without a vested interest in the matter get together.”

While Elias says socially-focused hackathons like Techfugees have proven “the tech community is up for creating social change”, the path to launching this hackathon has been met with some resistance.

Vibewire managed to secure $15,000 in funding for the hackathon, but was forced to turn to crowdfunding site StartSomeGood to raise the final $5000 required to run the event, after being met with closed doors from potential sponsors.

“We approached two councils and they said, ‘we don’t have discretionary funds to support [the hackathon]’, so we couldn’t ask for money,” Elias says.

“I cried on Friday after that. I don’t know what else we can do; we’re doing it for free, we have the tech community’s support, yet we couldn’t get any council support.” 

After being met with the council’s rebuke, Vibewire launched the crowdfunding campaign on Saturday, and has raised $2250 of its $5000 goal at the time of publication. It the campaign exceeds the $5000 goal, the organisers have set a stretch goal of $10,000, which would provide for a seed grant to be invested in the best solutions to come out of the hackathon.

The hackathon, which Elias says has already received 60 registrations, has also received the support of tech ecosystem leaders like StartupMuster‘s Monica Wulff and angel investor Alan Jones.

“It’s been amazing — this is all the tech startup people [funding the hackathon]. We know they want to make a difference,” Elias says.

“I’ve learnt something from this process. Sometimes I don’t tell people how hard it is … you have to say sooner rather than later ‘we really need help’.”

“Hacking with people, not hacking for people”

The hackathon will see prominent community leaders and homeless advocates, such as Rabbi Mendel Kastel, work together with attendees with a range of tech skills, as well as four participants who themselves have previously been homeless.

According to Elias, having some participants who are actively involved in the homeless community is crucial for providing insight into the issues this hackathon is aiming to solve.

“We’re not hacking for people, we’re hacking with people. We don’t do it without the homeless people at the centre — I think that’s really important,” Elias says.

“For me it’s that co-design element that makes it a bit different — its not just the NGOs [non-government organisations] or us saying, ‘let’s solve problems for people’, it’s people who have lived that experience.

“We can’t keep doing things for people, or throwing money towards the problem.”

Elias says while hackathons are “usually very commercial” events, socially-focused hackathons can provide a great way for people with a genuine interest in philanthropy to give back to the community.

Elias believes hackathon participants are also ideally suited to solving complex social problems because “they don’t have a vested interest — they aren’t aligned with policy or NGOs, they just want to make the world a better place.” 

“I reckon there will be people in the tech community who have been homeless in the past, on the brink of homeless or have slept in their car. That’s what we can see now in 2017, this isn’t something that happens to crazy people … this could happen to anyone,” she says.

 This is part of a 12-part series into hackathons SmartCompany is publishing in association with GovHack.

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