My Experience in the IDHACK 2016

Hackathon? Confused? Don’t know what it is? Is it worth staying awake for 24-48 hours and trying to solve a world problem? Read my blog below to find out what a hackathon is and how I won an award at IDHACK 2016. 

Hackathon. Firstly, it’s not about breaking into someone’s computer or related to some kind of computer crime. It is a fun social activity in which people with technical backgrounds come together and create a unique solution from scratch in the form of an app, website, robot, etc. Hackathons are currently taking the United States by storm and there are hundreds of hackathons taking place across the country. One of the most famous hackathon league is the Major League Hacking -the official student hackathon league that promotes these events in United States, Mexico, Canada, UK and several EU countries.

So what do you really do in a hackathon? Students from across the country gather at the hackathon site, where they have the opportunity to meet others who are passionate about technology. Then, everyone is shuffled into a room for opening talks where the organizers of the hackathon present their projector proposals to the student hackers. Within a few hours, students begin working together with a group of people they have just met, on a project the group is interested in.

The event takes place over a weekend, lasting between 24-48 hours. During this time, students play around with new technology and use it to convert ideas into reality.  In addition, they can participate in range of fun activities organized by the hackathon.  Hackers can also grab some sleep if they want. The hackathon ends with a demo session in which the participants present their project to the hackers and judges. The best projects are then selected by a panel of judges and are recognized at a prize ceremony. However, hackathons are not just about winning prizes; they are about learning and playing with technology.

So where do I fit into all of this? I went to an “International Development Hackathon” that was co-organized by Harvard, MIT and the Tufts Institute for Global Leadership with Platinum Partner Qualcomm under the Major League Hacking.

This was my first hackathon. I went not only because I love technology but also because I was curious and wanted to find out what really happens at a hackathon. When I arrived at the event, I was greeted by students from various colleges/universities. We were all taken to a room where several organizers like USAID, World Bank, MIT Lincoln Lab and others introduced their project to us.

And then the HACKING began.

We were expected to form a group with maximum of 5 people that would work together on the project proposed to us. We would then work for the next 24 hours to design a solution. There was a wide variety of projects but I was very much interested in the Long-Term Infrastructure Recovery Tracking System project organized by the MIT Lincoln Laboratory.

In this project, we had to create a mobile application that would act like an infrastructure reporting tool. Specifically, it would allow local community members around the world to track outstanding infrastructure issues in their area, such as lack of electricity or roads that have not been repaired. This would enable advocate for accountability and ensure equality between regions in terms of recovery support.

This project really hit home for me because of recent events in my home country of Nepal. A huge earthquake, of magnitude 7.8, had hit the country a few months prior, causing enormous infrastructure loss and damage to the country. I was there in my country when it happened. Luckily, my neighborhood was safe and there was no damage to our house or the surrounding buildings. It mainly affected the people living in the rural remote areas of the country and I can only imagine how much this type of application could have helped them. Therefore, this was definitely the project that I was going for.

I met with a bunch of students from Tufts University who were all beginners and we all decided to work on this project together. As we began to work, I remembered the issues that natives of Nepal during the earthquake. I presented the problem to my group, asking how we could design an app that people living in remote areas of the world can use. These people may not have access to Internet or a smartphone, so we needed to create an application that could be used on a normal mobile phone. We did just that and designed a menu system where we added a couple of questions and fields that would help local citizens report their problems. We then designed a database to be used by the government officials to track information and connected it to the menu system. The data base would get updated each time someone made the phone call, creating a set of live data.

We presented our project to the judges and we won the Best Design Project in the IDHACK 2016 for creating a project with the most thoughtful design. We were also recognized for taking into account the complexities of innovating within the context of international development.

This was really a great learning experience for me and I think all the students should take part in a hackathon. Not only do you acquire industry skills and work with new technology, but you can also meet new people, make new friends and enjoy some free food!