Mike Clarke is pumped. “Isn’t it awesome that the UN is involved in something like this?” he says when I introduce myself as a member of the media at the Innovating Response hackathon he recently organized in Beirut, with sponsorship from UNHCR. “I’m just so excited right now.”
Clarke is the founder of the Open Source Action Network (OSAN), which has now organized two hackathons in the Middle East with the goal of addressing problems faced by the 4.5 million Syrian refugees dispersed around the region. The first such event, held in the UAE in conjunction with New York University, Abu Dhabi, produced Sadiki, a Facebook chat bot that is now being tested by UNHCR’s Beirut team.
He’s clearly not the only one who’s buzzing though. The room is filled with dozens of students, young aid workers, and developers who are slouched on bean bags and guzzling coffee in anticipation for the sleepless nights ahead.
There are a few familiar faces from the Beirut tech and startup ecosystem who have dropped by to serve as mentors or judges or simply lend their support. Cameras click and fingers furiously type as participants and mentors listen to a presentation of challenges faced by refugees, put together by UNHCR, they would be addressing over the weekend.
By now, hackathons are a firmly established element of the tech world. There are a few things all hackathons have in common: There’s a goal of creating usable software in a condensed period of time according to a specific focus, there’s a preference for participants with diverse backgrounds, and there’s usually pizza.
In recent years, tech giants like Facebook have adopted the hackathon as a tool to evolve its products, using the weekends as labs for employees to develop ways to serve users better (Facebook Chat is the result of an early corporate hackathon).
Disruption that counts
For Clarke, the UN is the mega corporate that needs disrupting. OSAN’s hackathons use tech tools to address humanitarian issues. “Hackathons like this,” he says, still pretty excitedly, over coffee a few days after the event concluded, “are going to help us reimagine what is possible during a crisis, and that we might not need these gigantic archaic institutions to solve these problems and spend billions of dollars trying to do it.”
The winning team in Beirut developed a sensor called KwikSense that would alert shelter occupants and aid organizations to fires, floods, leaks, changes in structural stability, and dangerous temperature shifts.
They were awarded $3,000 as well as a year’s free office space in the city’s sparkling new Beirut Digital District complex, where the event was held. One team created an application that would allow vulnerable communities to trade goods and services using geo-location technology. Another standout was Jaleesa, an application to connect working parents in Beirut with vetted Syrian refugee women—an Airbnb for babysitting.
Since the hackathon, the UN-funded Humanitarian Innovation Lab in Beirut has accepted three of the runner-ups with the goal of developing real prototypes that can be deployed in the field.
At the presentation portion of the event, after two days of working round-the-clock, the energy was still surprisingly high—a result, participant Alaa Almutawa says, of the bonds formed among teams working under pressure. Her team, Aman, created “a central communication application that promotes safer living,” she says.
“What I really love about [the hackathon],” Almutawa’s teammate Hadeel Hassan says, as her teammates joke in the background, “is that we’re looking at the technology from the perspective of the refugees. These families feel behind us in terms of technology. There’s this modern world around them but they live in a more traditional kind of way.”
Of shattered illusions
All the participants I spoke to were energized by the opportunity to address the problems of refugee communities in need. However, there are a few questions surrounding the event’s efficacy in terms of both bringing good products to market, as well as deeper ones about whether the problems the teams worked to address—the ones presented at the beginning by UNHCR—are the ones refugees themselves would have named as the most pressing.
A mentor who prefers to remain anonymous tells me that if good quality end products were the ultimate goal, organizers should have done more outreach work in the developer community. He feels the overall quality suffered from the fact that the “participants were mostly students, inexperienced with hackathons…they didn’t know how to scope or implement their projects properly.”
What’s more, he says, many of the mentors just showed up for the initial ceremony, sent a tweet about it, and never came back to actually perform their mentorship role. “The mentors didn’t really understand what mentoring is,” the source says, “because they weren’t briefed properly. Actually, there was a briefing for mentors but no one came. Next time they could be more rigorous in vetting the mentors so they get people who actually want to be there.”
Another concern is existential rather than logistical. Clarke wonders if the UN actually stands in the way of tech professionals reaching refugees, rather than facilitating. “There were a lot of challenges we weren’t allowed to talk about [in the hackathon] because of UN politics, for instance, anything relating to informal education and the problem of transportation, or how kids get from the camps to school. The Lebanese government is against informal education [so we couldn’t address it at the hackathon],” says Clarke. “I feel that the UN’s interest is not always the same as their beneficiaries. Often their interest is their own survival,” he continues.
“My illusions have, in many ways, been shattered.”
Doing it right
If he’s able to hold another hackathon without the financial support of a big backer like UNHCR, he says he’ll do things differently.
For one thing, he’ll hold it in Lebanon’s rural Bekaa Valley, the area adjacent to Syria where most refugees live in tents or other impermanent settlements.
“I’ll also let the refugees direct the whole thing, let them tell me exactly what they need,” rather than accepting challenges proffered by the UN. “If UNHCR isn’t interested in supporting something like that…it makes no sense,” he says.
“We need to think about letting the refugees become more a part of the conversation, as [their needs] are the main objective here.”
If the hackathon hasn’t solved the refugee crisis in one swoop, at least it seems to have created a league of budding social entrepreneurs. The Jaleesa team—the Airbnb for babysitting—will incubate the project at Beirut’s AltCity over the summer.
Almutawa’s team plans to continue working on their project.
“Going to these hackathons and seeing other perspectives of how we think about technology opens a whole different world. I think we have to use tech in a better, smarter way that will help humanity rather than create apps that aren’t important… we need to find a way to impact these lives that need attention.”
Clarke is optimistic as well. “I’m going to disrupt the s**t out of this. This is unacceptable, period. We can’t live in a world where there are disconnects like this. Why is it easier for me to find somebody on Tinder than it is for a refugee to find a school for their kid? It’s ridiculous. It doesn’t make sense. It needs to change.”