Hacking Our Way to Social Good

Three attractive young students, gathered around a library table with piles of books and a laptop computer they are sharing,
Three attractive young students, gathered around a library table with piles of books and a laptop computer they are sharing, concentrating on the image on the screen.

A recent hackathon sponsored by Autism Speaks once again proves that we are harnessing the power of wireless to change lives in powerful and creative ways. At this hackathon, over 25 teams of tech-types worked to create mobile apps that improve the lives of those on the autism spectrum. The prize was $20,000. Alexis Wineman, the reigning Miss Montana; a trailblazing teen from Cut Bank, population 2,900, who just happens to be on the autism spectrum herself, was the event's keynote speaker.

At the hackathon, developers created apps like the winner "Puzzled," described by CNN as "a Yelp-like review designed to identify autism-friendly businesses and services." Another app, called Playsplosion, was developed by high school students. It helps individuals on the autism spectrum concentrate by caring for a virtual animal. These types of events and the apps they create hold extraordinary promise not only for the lives of those on the autism spectrum, but also for our economy and our future.

Hackathons are being used more and more often for social good. For environmental causes, animal welfare, improving government and so forth, there's some serious hacking going on. That a group of tech-types, many of whom are employed at jobs that pay them handsomely, use their spare time to help build mobile apps for good ought to make us all feel pretty optimistic about the future. It should also remind us of our own obligation to make sure they have the tools they need to continue to do the good things they're doing.

One of those tools is wireless spectrum. Spectrum is, simply, the oxygen that powers mobile communications. Alexis Wineman pointed out in a recent interview that she's a visual learner who's "more comfortable with pictures than words." Clearly she's not alone. Fifty percent of all mobile data traffic today is video. Video chews up exponentially more spectrum bandwidth on wireless smart devices than calls, emails or texting. So we have to ensure that there's enough spectrum to meet the explosive growth in mobile data, especially mobile video. The visual learners among us will demand it and we should do everything in our power to meet that need.

We also need to encourage investment in next generation mobile networks -- everywhere. Only with robust private investment that reaches the four corners of our nation can we ensure that the benefits of all the social good hackathons reach their intended beneficiaries. From Cut Bank, Montana, to all the other small towns, rural communities and big cities, U.S. mobile users are increasingly banking on access to new apps for our businesses, education, and just about every other facet of their lives. Let's make sure we have the high-speed broadband networks that can deliver them.

These hackathons teach us that all kinds of new possibilities are out there. Thanks to all of those who work to make the world a better place -- one hackathon at a time.

Diane Smith serves on the advisory board for Mobile Future and was co-founder and chief executive officer of Auroras Entertainment, an IPTV and advanced media services company in Kalispell, Mont.