Hackathon 2015: creative minds for humanitarian solutions

16 October, 2015
Photo: THE Port.
Photo: THE Port.
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“When I was growing up, my father didn’t allow my mother to use the phone in our home,” said Gayane Azizyan, a software engineer from Armenia who now lives in Sweden, “For so many reasons, women in male-dominated societies still do not benefit from day-to-day technology that could make a huge difference in their lives.”

Gayane was one of 140 creative minds participating in THE Port Hackathon at CERN and Campus Biotech held in Geneva, Switzerland, between 2 and 4 October 2015, who developed working prototypes and tangible solutions for humanitarian responses and issues. 

When Gayane was approached by the THE Port Association to work on a project looking at bridging the gender and technology gap in emergencies, she was perplexed. “In the case of my own family, I could not think of any solution–technological or otherwise–which could have made a difference,” Gayane wrote on a blog documenting the project. “Still, I agreed to work on the topic–after all, having seen the dark side of this, if I did not try to make a difference, who would?”

The thirteen interdisciplinary teams of the Hackathon, which was supported by OCHA, other United Nations agencies, NGOs and the private sector, had six weeks to prepare before the three-day event to develop working prototype solutions.

Topics for the Hackathon were selected in conjunction with OCHA and partners. These ranged from a platform to allow humanitarian actors to visualize and analyse humanitarian data, which included feedback collected from affected people, to a more effective air-drop bag to deliver goods to conflict zones and disaster-affected areas.

“People at the centre of that innovation dedicated time, skills and expertise, which are priceless, to resolving pressing humanitarian issues,” said Andrew Andrea of OCHA’s Private Sector Section, at the closing of the event.

Despite the many complex facets of their challenge, Gaya’s team developed an phone/tablet application for women. It will be available online and can be run on tablets placed in women-friendly areas, for example in a specific context such as a camp for displaced people in Iraq. It serves a dual purpose as an educational tool by increasing women’s digital literacy, while also allowing them to access humanitarian information and a hotline managed by the UN and NGOs in Iraq.

Another team developed a hybrid sensing network to provide real-time data to humanitarian organisations, peacekeeping bodies, media and local residents about explosions occurring in civilian areass.

"Our innovation will provide robust empirical data for ensuring accountability for the use of explosive ordinances in civilian areas," said Keven Koh, from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. “Our prototype will allow for the deployment of affordable, robust and discreet devices that can monitor acoustic phenomenon before, during, and after an explosion.” The data recorded by the platform has the potential to be used in war crime investigations and prosecutions.

"I always wondered why ‘techies’ were not more interested in humanitarian initiatives,” says Ilias Koutsakis, a software developer studying at CERN, “New start-ups appear every day and many of them try to make our lives easier, but what about people who lack most of the comforts that many of us take for granted?”

That is why Ines Knaepper, co-founder of THE Port Hackathon, started the initiative in 2014. “Geneva is a centre for humanitarian work and scientific minds, but we rarely bring the two together,” she said, “the idea came to me when I was told by humanitarian friends that if they had access to better tools, they could help more people.”

Ines and her colleagues, who are all volunteers, carefully reviewed over 200 applications, and short-listed 90 candidates who all had to submit video interviews in order to participate in the event. “We have a strict selection process for participants,” explained Ines, “this way, we ensure we have the right people who can move these projects forward, even beyond the hackathon event.”

Hackathon participants and supporting partners, including OCHA, are now looking for opportunities to take this year’s innovative solutions forward. One of the prototypes from last year’s Hackathon, a body bag that delays decomposition thus enabling the identification of the dead, is today being produced by the International Committee of the Red Cross

The Hackathon’s outcomes were also presented by THE Port at the Innovation Marketplace at the World Humanitarian Summit Global Consultation in Geneva on 14 October 2015 and will also be presented at the World Humanitarian Summit to be held in Istanbul in May 2016.

“The key now is to take these innovative solutions forward,” said OCHA’s Andrew Andrea, “ we need to test them and turn them into action.”