What are Social Hackathons?

Heard of the term 'Hackathon' before? If not, imagine gathering a group of tech whizzes to hack a problem within a limited period of time. Our Social Hackathons are similar but we've put our own spin on it - they're our problem-solving and solution-creating events that give UCL volunteers a first-hand insight into the third sector.

Volunteers are placed with a local not-for-profit organisation for one day, devising and implementing solutions to issues they currently face. In teams, the volunteers develop skills, learn about the Third Sector from its own professionals and connect with new communities across London.

If you want to find out more about what our Social Hackathons are like, check out our write-ups of each Hackathon series below.

We'll be hosting another round of Social Hackathons in February 2022, so keep an eye out when our applications open in January!

Social Hackathons, February 2019

Where it all began...

Our first-ever Hackathon series started in February 2019 during Reading Week. This was our pilot programme to see whether these Hackathons could appeal to both students and charities alike. UCL student volunteers went into four local charities: Fulham Good Neighbours, Age UK Westminster, Yes Futures and Calthorpe Project.

They worked on a range of tasks: compiling a Business Case for setting up a trading subsidiary; designing a visually impaired-friendly website; devising a marketing strategy and engaging an isolated community.

You can find out more about each Hackathon from our Photojournalists who attended and documented the events.

"I met some lovely and friendly people" - volunteer with Age UK Westminster 

We also spoke to Rhea and Dorad, Hackathon volunteers, about their experience. Rhea told us all about her day with Fulham Good Neighbours - although not usually a fan of group projects, Rhea loved taking part in the project and seeing that her work had made a genuine impact. 

Dorad was placed with Age UK Westminster and looked at designing and implementing a more visually impaired-friendly website. Looking for a career in coding and IT, he was super happy that the Hackathon enabled him to combine his passions with altruism.

"I feel as though the charity will actually use our research, so it's very worthwhile" - UCL volunteer with Fulham Good Neighbours

For each charity, volunteers produced an incredible, comprehensive report on their research with suggestions and recommendations. These were gratefully received by the charity leads and have been presented to trustee boards and other governing staff members to implement solutions, with them saying they are happy that they now "have fresh new ideas to work with and implement".

Social Hackathons, November 2019

Back by popular demand!

After the initial success of our first Hackathon round, our second Hackathon series ran in November 2019 with London Museum of Water & Steam, Action on Hearing Loss, Holborn Community Centre and Museum of Brands as hosts. Students for each Hackathon were tasked with developing a volunteer recruitment process, designing a sensory garden for service users, creating a social enterprise and coming up with engagement strategy respectively. 

Our photojournalists attended two of our Hackathons and both have brilliant recounts of the day along with some great pics - read what happened at the London Museum of Water & Steam and Action on Hearing Loss.

"Social Hackathons are a great way to get out of your student routine and try something new" - UCL volunteer with Museum of Brands

Philippine attended our Hackathon at the Museum of Brands - as someone who wants to have a career in the charity sector, she loved that the day gave her a unique perspective on how a charity operates and engages their visitors.

"It’s such a great feeling to know that you’re having such a positive impact on your community!" - UCL volunteer with Holborn Community Association  

Maria volunteered with Holborn Community Association, designing a social enterprise in which the organisation could sell art to local residents, and she raved about how the the problem-solving nature of Hackathons gave her a refreshing outlook on volunteering. 

Social Hackathons, July 2020

No in-person? No problem!

This summer, we delivered our first-ever series of online Social Hackathons in collaboration with UCL Listen and Respond. From 13-17 July, we held five very different, but much-needed Hackathon events. 

With Covid-19 impacting almost all areas of life, including the charity sector, it seemed there was a different air surrounding our Hackathons like never before. Charities had to face issues they never saw coming, and students had a new-found desire to help communities in need and leave a positive impact, in whatever way they could. 

Some of these Hackathons included developing a more inclusive online employment process for people with Asperger's, helping a community organisation source tech devices to combat digital poverty for their beneficiaries, and advising a charity on how to redesign their website to engage a wide variety of stakeholders. 

Dora attended one of our virtual Hackathons, helping Anna Fiorentini Theatre and Film School explore ways to secure urgently-needed funding to keep the school running for young children.

"I would definitely recommend the experience to anyone interested in making a difference for a day." - Dora

"It was super fun to get creative and meet new people!" - Edie

Another participant was Edie, who was tasked with helping East London-based Housing Association Poplar HARCA boost their online presence and improve their volunteer recruitment process, in light of having to transition online to adapt in the wake of Covid-19.

Although this was our first time hosting an online Social Hackathon week, UCL volunteers really rose to the challenge and delivered exceptional results that impressed all five organisations involved.

Our UCL volunteers were absolute superstars; collaborating online over Zoom (which was still relatively new to everyone at the time), working across different time zones and having to meet their brief in 6 hours was definitely out of their comfort zone but this did not hamper the quality of the work they produced - a round of applause for all our volunteers involved!

These virtual Hackathons were a huge success and gave us the confidence to host more in the near future.

Social Hackathons, November 2020

Owning online Hackathons!

After the success of our first virtual Social Hackathons back in July, we went in to this week full of enthusiasm for the power of virtual collaboration and we were not disappointed! UCL volunteers yet again rose to the challenge, working with a group of fellow students and a charity partner they produced impressive project proposals, clearly structured reports and TED-worthy powerpoint presentations.

Some of our Hackathons focused on a move to digital and a need to learn about revising in-person methods, others looked at accessibility for disabled students, volunteer recruitment and inclusive communication strategies. The asks from charities were varied and volunteers were kept busy during the 6 hour day researching, sharing and presenting ideas. 

Liyann was tasked to help Business Education Events find ways of digitising their entrepreneurship youth programme. 

Our opinions and ideas helped the charity realise some of its strengths, weaknesses and opportunities that it was less aware of, and also sparked some fresh thoughts in the charity about their operations and the work they do. - Liyann

Another volunteer Leina worked in a group to support new forms of intergenerational volunteering with Caritas Westminster. 

Our group was able to listen to stakeholder concerns and work in breakout rooms on how we would solve their issues. It was a very relaxed environment where everyone was enthusiastic and supportive. - Leina

Social Hackathons, February 2021

Fundraising products, international development and virtual reality!

February reading week saw groups of volunteers come together with five diverse partners to generate ideas on wide ranging topics with some pretty brilliant outcomes. 

Charity partner Empathy Action delivered a hackathon in which volunteers participated in a live empathy simulation and collaborated in generating ideas including new virtual reality softwear.

Other highlights of the week included a virtual visit to Kentish Town City Farm with a day of generating a new fundraising product, improving mentoring sessions for refugee and asylum seeking charity Salusbury World and generating engaging and accessible online content for Eye Heroes.

Wenxin has shared her experience of volunteering with Salusbury world.

We generated ideas to improve the quality of their remote mentoring sessions by investigating different platforms, communication tools and feedback from mentors. It is good to hear that Salusbury World will take some of our ideas into their real work and keep touch with us about the updates.

It was without doubt a jam-packed week with some long days of sharing thoughts, mapping processes and lots of learning!

Social Hackathons, July 2021

A summer of Hacks!

This July officially marked the one-year anniversary of our virtual Social Hackathons. Initially started last summer as an alternative to virtually connect UCL students with our community partners since in-person event couldn’t go ahead, these hackathons were quite the experiment. We weren’t sure if students or the community partners would enjoy the format and how it would be received.

One year and four hackathon series later, we can say, they’ve gone pretty well, actually.

Students have proven that virtual collaboration is no hindrance and have taken up the challenges that Covid-19 has created onto our community partners in their stride, generating countless ideas to benefit the host organisations.   

This summer, seven community organisations joined the Social Hackathons programme, the largest we’ve ever organised. We had students join across the summer period to help solve a variety of problems – including Our Parklife who wanted to recruit younger, BAME volunteers and our students devised ways they could tap into these communities.

Another Social Hackathon was with the Museum of Brands, who needed their current retail offer in the museum shop reviewed in order to generate more income for the museum.

“Social Hackathons a good way to get experience in the voluntary sector and help a charity in a short amount of time.” Elena Kayayan, volunteer

Paul Ho had joined for the day volunteering with Ataxia UK, helping them improve their online engagement, saying “I had done a few social hackathons before and really loved the experience every time.”

Students took on the challenges, with some even joined more than one hackathon (we think they just couldn’t get enough!). We really appreciated our volunteers taking the time out of the summer holidays to

Partner Progress: The impact we've had!

Catching up and checking in with the charity partners we've helped!

It's all well and good hosting our Social Hackathons and hoping they have a positive impact on the charity partners we've helped, but we like to know we've really made a difference, and that the change-making action our students put in motion is still leaving a mark on the organisation! 
So, we always make sure to check in regularly with our partners to find out how they're progressing since our students took on their challenges. 
Here's just a selection of some of the favourite positive responses we've had so far.

So, we always make sure to check in regularly with our partners to find out how they're progressing since our students took on their challenges. Here's just a selection of some of the favourite positive responses we've had so far.

In November 2020, we helped Age UK Westminster put plans in motion to promote their volunteering opportunities, both to potential volunteers and to their targeted beneficiaries, in new and innovative ways!  As of June 2021, these plans are currently being developed: from new event planning, to simplification of the application process, to increasing the reach of their volunteer leaflet. 

Business Development Manager, Carly, tells us:

The Hackathon was really useful and the ideas generated helped us to create new ways of promoting our opportunities to our audience. We are using methods that would cater to a variety of older people on and offline. - Carly Connolly, Business Development & Fundraising Manager, Age UK Westminster

As of June 2021, Lisa tells us:

The UCL gang that volunteered were so amazing. We felt like we had been given high level consultancy experience! In fact, one of the students then volunteered with a school for us. She shared a game that she had been developing with some young people at a school we work at.

The whole experience was invaluable. We are very grateful!

- Lisa Quinn, Business Education Events Ltd.

In November 2020, we also helped Business Education Events Ltd. with an array of recommendations for improving their social media and website. We're so thrilled to hear that the funding gained from our Hackathon has indeed gone towards putting all of these recommendations into place, and the organisation is at the cusp of finalising and going live with the new changes. We will certainly check back soon for an exciting update once this is completed!