When you picture a hackathon, some things come to mind – young people huddled together in rooms with brightly coloured walls covered with charts and sticky notes, mentors hovering over them to tweak something and delivering speeches to a room full of expectant faces.
The “Master the Disaster Hackathon” organized by UNDP in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa resulted in no such images to share over social media (or sprinkle through this piece) but it delivered far beyond anyone’s expectations as UNDP Pakistan’s first hackathon held completely online.
A month prior to this hackathon, things were different. The UNDP team had worked tirelessly to have all the preparations done on time for an event in Peshawar – travel, accommodations, registrations, venue bookings and everything else that goes into bringing around 70 people together for two days of brainstorming and ideation. We were set to depart for Peshawar when it was announced that we should start working from home and avoid large gatherings due to the risks posed by COVID-19. The hackathon was called off.
A few weeks into working from home, it became apparent that social distancing would be the new normal for far longer than a few weeks. We had several discussions with colleagues and partners, oscillating between waiting-and-seeing and doing-what-we-can. Eventually, we decided to conduct the hackathon online. We emailed and called mentors, judges and participants, who were all eager to be a part of the first of its kind online hackathon being carried out by UNDP in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Given the prevailing situation with COVID-19, preparedness and response to public health emergencies was added as an additional challenge for participants to discuss.
The long-awaited day finally arrived, with fifty-one participants, seventeen speakers, seven judges and twelve mentors participating in the two-day hackathon. Twelve teams came together to work on the challenges set for them – climate change induced disasters and COVID-19. Working from their homes in different cities in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the participants successfully collaborated to bring forth innovative ideas, ranging from early warning and awareness mobile apps to modified personal protective equipment and ventilators. The winning ideas included a digital platform to provide real-time disaster updates from the government and a nationwide volunteer force that can be mobilized for crises through a mobile application.
Some participants did face connectivity issues – so while keeping our videos off while communicating may have resulted in relatively drab pictures emerging from the hackathon, it helped us all hear each other better. But after everything is said and done, is an onscreen conversation ever really the same as sitting across from a living, breathing person? Is writing in chat boxes comparable to etching out a plan on a paper flipchart? Having the hackathon online was a vastly different experience from coming together "in real life”, but it did give us a lot to think about.
Breaking the ice seemed to take a little bit longer than it might have in person, as participants battled with routines disturbed by the pandemic, noisy homes, and no way to gauge each other’s body language. But things smoothened out eventually, with many participants describing their online interactions as positive.
The Master the Disaster hackathon also proved that digital technology is a great method to achieve inclusiveness. It allowed us to reach those we may have normally not been able to reach beyond the provincial capital of Peshawar – participants joined in by clicking a link instead of traveling several kilometres.
Some interesting trends with respect to gender also emerged. Many participants observed that the women, about a third of the participants, were often more “present” than the men – turning up earlier, speaking up more, and interacting with mentors. Could it be that the videoconferencing platform acted as a safer space for women?
This hackathon and others like it can open up the floor to new discussions, perspectives, and ideas. One of these is how this widening online space can allow traditionally marginalized groups such as women to feel emboldened to participate. This can lead to further discussions on how such new voices can be normalized in the innovation space, and whether more vulnerable groups such as girls, other gender minorities, and persons with disabilities can be reached out to in similar ways.