Vancouver’s tech startups are hosting a charity hackathon

As San Francisco’s startups and civic leaders clash, Vancouver’s tech companies are looking for a different relationship to the city

Laptops crowded onto a table covered with cables and water bottles

VanHacks, a Vancouver “social good hackathon,” is aimed at solving problems for charities. (Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg/Getty)

Vancouver’s burgeoning technology community may aspire to become a nexus of money and talent akin to Silicon Valley, but it’s making an ever more deliberate effort to distinguish itself from the Bay Area’s uncaring “tech bro” culture. Ninety software developers have paid $25 each to compete in a 36-hour “social good hackathon” March 4–6 at the offices of social media company Hootsuite. What they will be working on is software solutions for charities including Big Sisters of B.C., Canuck Place Children’s Hospice, Ending Violence Association of B.C. and the Greater Vancouver Food Bank.

“When we brought this idea forward, it resonated really deeply in the community,” says organizer Chris Hobbs, president of mobile development firm Two Tall Totems as well as ViDIA, a group of 2,000 iOS developers in the city. Tickets to take part (limited due to fire regulations) sold out in three days, before the early-bird pricing expired. Other sponsors include Slack, Microsoft, Lighthouse Labs, Mobify, Radical iO, Axiom Zen and Dynamic Leap. “I had Salesforce call me an hour ago to say they want to be part of this,” Hobbs says.

Another of the participants in VanHacks, as the event is known, is Knack by Potluck Café, a non-profit with the goal of building an online platform to help workers and employers in low-income neighbourhoods (starting with the Downtown Eastside) connect quickly and efficiently.

For years Vancouver’s IT scene has been known for reaching out to the community, for example putting on Canada’s first free coding boot camps. Hobbs says VanHacks sold itself; there is a strong desire among techies in the city to give something back. That contrasts with the tech industry’s often fractious relationship to its host communities in the Bay Area, where newly minted multimillionaires have been known to buy residents out of their homes on the spot and complain to municipalities about homeless people marring their views.

“San Francisco is a different environment from Vancouver. People live here because of the lifestyle. You’re not making millions of dollars,” says Hobbs, whose company has a branch office in San Francisco and who travels there regularly. In fact he thinks many young coders in Canada can’t afford to donate money to worthy causes—like San Francisco, Vancouver has a high cost of living—but would happily contribute their time and talents.

As for what will be achieved during the hackathon, Hobbs is hoping one or two of the participating non-profits’ problems gets solved. “It’s 36 hours. I’m not holding my breath,” he says. But extra points will be awarded to teams creating open-source solutions that not only the participating charity but their counterparts in other cities can eventually use. “I really want to ignite a flame, to see if this can expand beyond a weekend.”