MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Picture a computer hacker. Got an image? You think they're doing something criminal, right? Well, how's this: More than 1,000 software engineers and other tech workers met in 21 spots around the world this past weekend. They were taking part in a humanitarian effort called Random Hacks of Kindness. Hacking actually means tinkering, and these folks were using their skills to do good.

Reporter Kaomi Goetz met some of them in New York.

KAOMI GOETZ: It's safe to say it's pretty unusual for Microsoft, Google and Yahoo to partner on anything.

(Soundbite of crowd)

GOETZ: But at the New York gathering, a number of their employees mingled with each other as well as global leaders. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was there and admitted being a little out of his element.

Mr. BAN KI-MOON (United Nations Secretary-General): Unlike some of our colleagues here today from NASA, I'm not a rocket scientist.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KI-MOON: I may be the last person to talk about high-tech, what's going on now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GOETZ: But the U.N. presence underscores how interested large, humanitarian organizations are in getting help from the tech community. The latest example of this is Random Hacks of Kindness, a two-day hackathon happening in different cities around the world.

It's a competition where software developers get a chance to hack - or apply their skills to solve problems that arise during humanitarian crises. They use open-source technology that's public and collaborative. That means engineers for Google and Microsoft - at least, here - can work side by side.

Patrick Svenburg is a director for Microsoft, and a co-founder of Random Hacks of Kindness. He says it was a little risky at first.

Mr. PATRICK SVENBURG (Director, Microsoft; Co-Founder, Random Hacks of Kindness): We threw all cautions to the wind and we, you know, got a little group of people together in November of 2009, at the first hackathon - at Silicon Valley. Had about 100 people show up. I didn't get fired; nobody got fired.

GOETZ: And in just two subsequent events, participation has exploded. When a crisis like a flood or a devastating earthquake hits, aid groups are often working in the dark. They need reliable data maps. Where are the people? What are the problems? New technology lets aid workers analyze what's going on in real time, and make better decisions faster.

Sara Farmer makes those maps. She used to work for a military contractor. Now, she helps people facing natural disasters.

Ms. SARA FARMER (Software Engineer): A lot of us, a lot of people who were involved in the Haiti and the Chile and the Pakistan responses - we discovered that the skills that we had made a massive difference to people, literally saved lives.

(Soundbite of auditorium)

GOETZ: In a college auditorium in Manhattan, hackers with projects made pitches to try to get help from others for the next two days. They formed teams. Whiteboards, laptops, and lots of caffeine appeared for the next 30-plus hours of hacking. They were all hoping to produce a result like developer Andy Gup. Last year, he created software that picked up messages from Twitter to pinpoint crisis hot spots. It was immediately used in Haiti, and continues to be by dozens of agencies.

Mr. ANDY GUP (Tech Developer): In the dark ages - two to five years ago - it would've taken a long time to deploy these applications. Now, we're seeing applications that help these people immediately. And they're built within sometimes hours, days - or weeks, at most.

(Soundbite of applause)

GOETZ: The event awarded prizes, like smart phones and flip cams, for the top hacks. Winners also got praise from their peers - and some free beer. The real reward, they know, will come later.

For NPR News, I'm Kaomi Goetz in New York.

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