Social Good

Meet the weekend ethical hackers

Positive Influence - June 2015

Ethical hackers, a growing band of computer professionals, use their skills to work out of hours on projects benefitting society.

Don Christie, founder and director of Wellington's largest open source service and cloud computing service provider Catalyst, is happy if developers and other IT professionals working for the firm moonlight as hackers.

Thanks to the media, hacker is a term usually associated with people who do bad things with computers. However, the word has taken on a more positive meaning in technology circles. In that world hacking is the art of taking things apart, then putting them back together in ways that are better or where they do something that was never the original designer's intent.

Away from their day jobs, the hackers working at Catalyst get together with colleagues, designers and peers from other technology firms to work on projects for the public good. They collaborate at weekend-long events know in New Zealand as hackathons, elsewhere they are known as code days or codefests.

Hack Miramar is such an event. First held in November 2014, the event was established in Wellington's eastern suburbs by three technology professionals: Ian Apperley, Mike Riversdale and Ben Wilde. 30 people joined teams to solve technology problems focused on transport between their neighbourhood and the CBD.

Christie says Catalyst employees took part in last year's Hack Miramar event without any intervention from the company.

"They went there to solve community problems and to meet other people, share interesting ideas and learn."

Among other things they developed a real-time app for phones that tells travellers how long they need to wait for the next bus and how full it will be when it arrives.

In July Hack Miramar and Catalyst employees will take part in New Zealand's biggest hackathon to date: GovHackNZ, a nationwide event where white hat hackers — a term used to describe ethical hackers —will join people from government, academia and industry to work on projects using New Zealand government open data.

Bringing in outside help through a hackathon helps inject the entrepreneurial energy and innovation of the private sector into government and has the potential to kickstart projects that might otherwise be overlooked.

According to Christie, staff at Catalyst are well suited to hackathons because they already spend much of their time working with open source software and open data.

He says: "This means there's software we can share with others and our staff are free to share." Catalyst additionally provides support to hackathons by allowing access to their cloud.

They will provide that same support at GovHack and anticipate increased involvement as the event grows.

It's not just individuals who learn from taking part in hackathons. Christie says Catalyst simply donated resources in the past. For GovHack it will preconfigure cloud infrastructure so the hacker projects can hit the ground running.


Contributing Writer: Bill Bennett

Some "whitehats" at work