Hackathons – Where Humanitarians meet Hackers

Over the last few years as the global refugee crisis has deepened, there has been an outpouring of support from an unlikely source: the tech industry.  We will explore the tech response in this post, and then on Monday we will explore opinions and reviews on how effective the industry’s response has been. So stay tuned!

There has been a wide range of professionals from web designers, html coders to game developers that have helped create resources for refugees. Some examples of these initiatives are Refugees Welcome a housing locator website dubbed the ‘AirBnB for Refugees’, to an app called “Bureau-crazy”, developed by Syrian refugees to help others navigate Germany’s complex government bureaucracy.  

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Many of these resources have come out of events known as hackathons, in which a group of tech experts and innovators come together to design a solution to a specific problem, in this case faced by refugees.

In 2015, Mike Butcher the editor-at-large of Tech Crunch a technology news website, founded the social-enterprise Techfugees whose goal was to coordinate, “the international tech community’s response to the needs of refugees.”  Techfugees boasts a network of 15,000 members and has organized a wide array of hackathons, workshops and other events.  It’s most recent hackathon was held in Amman, Jordan during the city’s Start-up Weekend,  November 17th – 19th.

Another organization called the Open Source Action Network or OSAN, worked with the UN Refugee Agency or UNHCR to put a refugee focused hackathon in Beirut, Lebanon. The hackathon, which took place in June of this year posed nine different humanitarian challenges to the events participants. The challenges ranged from improving vaccination campaigns to how UNHCR could better communications with vulnerable populations.  

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The hackathon produced two winners. The first was by the company Kwik Response, whose proposal would create a series of sensors, which could be installed in refugee tents to detect fires, freezing temperatures and the structural stability in order to alert camp officials in the case of an emergency.  The second winner was a proposal from the company Silah, which designed an app refugees could use to trade and barter goods.

Watch for our next post on Monday in which we explore critiques by humanitarians on tech solutions for refugee challenge. This will analyze calls for greater collaboration between the tech industry and the aid agencies. Additionally we’ll review the results of this weekend’s upcoming hackathon in Greece put on by the organization #peacehack and the U.S. Embassy in Greece called #HackTheCamp: A hackathon ready to provide the refugee crisis with solutions.

By Dave Thatcher

Dave is currently a student Metropolitan State University of Denver focusing on convergent journalism and multimedia advocacy studies. He has a strong interest in emerging digital storytelling techniques and new ways to achieve audience engagement and social impact through multimedia. Prior to his multimedia studies, Dave spent several years working in the field of refugee resettlement in the United States. Additionally he worked abroad in Sub-Saharan Africa as protections specialist for human rights defenders. In his spare time, Dave can be found wandering the winding streets of Istanbul in search of the perfect cup of coffee.

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