Hackathons bring open source innovation to humanitarian aid

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Hackathons bring open source innovation to humanitarian aid

OpenHack. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Humanitarian and development aid is about helping people suffering from both short-term and long-term problems. These problems can be natural (e.g., droughts, floods, and earthquakes) as well as man-made (e.g., poverty, war, and oppression). A recent example of a humanitarian crisis is the refugee situation in Europe, and the disorder in Syria and its surrounding region.

For people who want to actively help, there are many organizations that rely on and gladly take in volunteers. For those who want to use their core skills and competencies, there are organizations such as Doctors Without Borders and Engineers Without Borders. I joined the latter, but was surprised to learn there were no software-specific initiatives. This is where open source comes in.

In open source software, end users, decision makers, subject matter experts, and developers from around the world can work together to create great solutions. There are a lot of mature open source projects out there already in the field of humanitarian and development aid, for example: Ushahidi and Sahana in crisis management and information gathering, OpenMRS for medical records, Martus for secure information sharing in places with limited freedom of speech, and Mifos X, an open platform for financial inclusion for people in poor areas where financial services such as savings, payments, and loans are not offered.

Hackathons bring people together

Knowledge and awareness of these projects and the potential of open source software as a tool in humanitarian and development aid, however, is very limited. To address this issue on a local level, we arranged a hackathon called OpenHack and put people and organizations interested in software development and tech together with representatives and subject-matter experts from aid organizations. Hackathons like this one provide a great venue for creating and testing innovative ideas with quick feedback.

We had a great turnout, with 70 participants and 12 teams presenting their results in the end of the weekend. We had participants from both Denmark and Sweden who ranged from high school and university students to entrepreneurs and employees. Among the participants were also newly arrived refugees who shared their views and experiences.

Participants had the option to either work on their own ideas or on case challenges provided by on-site aid organizations and open source projects (Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), ActionAid, Doctors Without Borders, Red Cross, Ushahidi and Node-RED). SIDA requested help with ensuring its financial aid had reached its intended destination and with what effect. Doctors Without Borders requested ideas on how reduce unnecessary destruction of medicine in the supply chain from its origin to the final destination. Ushahidi requested help on how their crowd platform could be improved in regards to gather, map, and analyze information after a disaster.

One response to Doctors Without Borders' challenge showed how temperature sensors in the medicine supply chain can bring attention to cooling malfunctions, which is a common and very expensive real-world issue. The concept has been picked up by Doctors Without Borders and is being used as basis for discussion of how the idea can be developed further. Another proof-of-concept was created with the help of Node-RED and IBM BlueMix services to help structure data to Ushahidi, as a lot of incoming data is unstructured and needs to be better prepared to allow for proper analysis. Ushahidi has adopted the concept and is working on how to develop it further as a part of the platform.

Awareness is spreading

We're very happy with the event turnout and results. Our goals were, and continue to be, to:

  • Show techies how they can use their skills to make a difference.
  • Show aid organizations how tech volunteers can help them rethink and improve their work.
  • Show how hackathons and open source software can help bridge the gap between victims of disasters, aid organizations, and developers.

We are happy to see that we are not alone in our struggle. Several hackathons have popped up in response to the refugee situation. In Sweden, we have RefugeeTech in Stockholm and Hack For Refugees in Gothenburg. Internationally, we have Techfugees and EmpowerHack from London, UK. In general, the whole tech field has started to see how they can make a difference: UNICEF, UNHCR, and UNOCHA all have very active innovation units partly focused on how software can help to innovate their specific fields. Startups and established firms are getting better at dedicating resources and expanding their work in corporate social responsibility (CSR). There are also many mature open source projects out there such as Ushahidi and OpenMRS. Existing volunteer organization such as Geekcorps and Geeks Without Borders are also giving people a chance to help.

I hope all these initiatives will continue to spread the idea that anyone with a laptop can become an aid volunteer and ultimately make a difference.

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I'm a software engineer and PhD student at Lund University, Sweden. I investigate firms’ decision and requirements processes in alignment with their overall open source business models to help answer questions about what to reveal, when and how. My interests include how open source and tech can help digitalize humanitarian and development aid, both globally and locally.

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