Ordinarily, when the word hacking is associated with computers, the connotation is negative. But 17-year-old Mountain View High School senior Zach Stay is changing that by using his computer skills in putting together a conference to fight poverty.
Stay's Hacking Poverty Conference will take place today from 3 to 9 p.m., and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Mountain View High School, 665 W. Center St. in Orem. The conference is free to attend, and open to the public.
"Hacking refers to breaking into something, figuring out how it works, and changing it," Stay said. "We are focusing on that aspect of hacking, not on destroying computer programs."
In fact, the purpose of the conference is to bring together people interested in creating computer programs or applications that will help the poor. Companies or organizations that have committed to send representatives to the conference include i.TV, Maxsam Partners, Perfect Search Corporation, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Brigham Young University, Utah Valley University, and Mountain View High School.
Stay drew his inspiration for the conference from an event he read about, called "Random Hacks of Kindness" -- a developers' conference that made applications to help during natural disasters. The conference was sponsored by big names in the technology industry such as Microsoft, Google and Yahoo, and one Twitter application that was developed by the group was reportedly widely used for communication in the aftermath of the recent earthquake in Haiti.
Stay said he had been thinking for some time about what he personally could do to make a difference in the world, and when he read about "Random Hacks," he and his father, Tim Stay, investigated to see if there was a similar conference dedicated to alleviating poverty. They did not find one, and Zach Stay went forward with his plans for the Hacking Poverty Conference.
Tim Stay is CEO of Perfect Search Corporation, an Orem-based technology company, but also has experience in outreach to Third World countries as co-founder of Unitus (pronounced "unite us"), a non-profit organization that has specialized in helping the poor through micro-finance projects.
Zach Stay contacted Fraser Nelson, executive director of the Community Foundation of Utah, for help in contacting hundreds of non-profit organizations to get their ideas for software applications that would help those groups.
Nelson called the idea of the conference "wonderful," and said she was glad her organization could be of assistance.
Other feedback has come from Tim Stay's company, Perfect Search.
"We are participating," said Ken Ebert, chief technology officer of Perfect Search, "because we think it is an important part of our company culture to give back. We are thrilled that a conference like this has been created, and we hope to see it grow from year to year."
One idea of about a half-dozen that Zach Stay will have on the table for work at the conference is the creation of a "fighting poverty applications store" to allow people from around the world to upload phone applications that benefit the poor in some way. The applications would be available for free download.
Another idea is for an application to allow humanitarian aid workers to use phones to record basic information abut clients they serve, and where they live. When the information is uploaded using Twitter, global positioning satellite coordinates are sent with the client information, and appended to a Google map.
In much of the developing world, no address system exists, so it has sometimes been difficult for humanitarian workers to locate the clients they serve, according to a write-up on Zach Stay's conference website. The information could also be critical in the event of natural disasters, where entire sections of villages can be wiped out. The application, or similar ones, could help rescue workers trying to find the missing, or trying to most effectively direct resources.
Zach Stay's mother, Dalita Stay, said that in her husband's travels with Unitus, Tim Stay has seen that perhaps one person in a village has a phone, and becomes the "resident cell phone holder." Zach Stay noted that cell phones are becoming more affordable, and do have more computing power, and even one cell phone in a community can make a difference.
Participants in the conference are encouraged to bring a laptop computer, ideas they might like to see developed, and any required programming tools.
At conference sessions, participants will be organized into groups with project managers to head up the work on the different proposed applications. BYU professor Warner Woodworth, a founder of many non-profit organizations, will be a speaker. When Saturday's work sessions conclude, the managers will report, and follow-up assignments will be made.
"My main hope is that we either create something that is useful to those in poverty, or that we help raise awareness that technology can help fight poverty," Zach Stay said.
Dalita Stay said that Zach is a "peacemaker" in the family, and one who is eager to use his skills to help others.
"We're proud of him," she said.
For more information on the conference, contact Zach Stay at (801) 734-9782 or visit,http://www.hackingpoverty.org.