Saudi, British tech innovators line up behind first dual-nation hackathon

Updated 04 November 2016
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Saudi, British tech innovators line up behind first dual-nation hackathon

LONDON/RIYADH: Leading international, UK and Saudi businesses, organizations and start-ups within tech, innovation, health and business investment have lined up to support the first ever MiSK Hackathon event taking place live and simultaneously in London and Riyadh on Nov. 25 to 27.
Representatives from Microsoft, STC, the Saudi-British Joint Business Council, the British Council, the British Embassy in Riyadh, the Ministry of Health in Saudi Arabia, HealthTech Women, Tech London Advocates, Women Who Code, Stemettes, Code:First Girls and GrowthEnabler, among many more, have all pledged support, with many occupying mentoring roles at the event. The panel of judges will soon be unveiled.
Organized by the MiSK Foundation, the Hackathon is part of its ongoing work to cultivate learning and leadership among all Saudi youth through innovative programs in association with local and global organizations and partners across diverse and creative fields, under the patronage of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
In what the deputy crown prince has called a “milestone initiative”, the event will be the first time that cross-cultural, mixed gender collaboration between the two nations has taken place, with up to 400 participants communicating through technology and a live satellite broadcast link to dream up a health tech innovation.
Prince Mohammed said: “Strong and collaborative cross-nation partnership through technology, innovation and youth enterprise hold the keys to a thriving, healthy, diverse and prosperous state, paving the way for our next generation and the future of our Kingdom.”
Welcoming the initiative, UK Executive Director Chris Innes-Hopkins of the Saudi-British Joint Business Council said: “The UK is a key strategic partner for Saudi Arabia's implementation of Vision 2030. In a global economy, collaboration between the two nations is an important driver of tech innovation, entrepreneurship and shared productivity. We hope this initiative inspires more Saudi-UK innovation ventures of this kind.”
The British Council has also applauded the initiative for increasing cross-cultural connectivity. Says British Council Country Director, Saudi Arabia, Amir Ramzan: “All our work in Saudi promotes cross-cultural collaboration and is driven by the belief that a people-to-people approach helps to build long term trust and understanding. We’re delighted to be working with MiSK Hackathon this year to connect young, ambitious entrepreneurs in Saudi and the UK and give them a space where they can experiment together and accelerate their thinking."
Deemah Alyahya, executive director of Microsoft, which is supporting the event, said: “The MiSK Hackathon is all about connecting people around the world through technology, helping them realize their full potential. That’s our aim too, and we’re proud to support anything that helps bring about such positive change.”
The initiative has also driven accolades from leading female-focused tech and health organizations and networks, which all champion the ambition to bring more women into a male-dominated technology sector.
Comments Maxine Mackintosh, UK chair of international network, HealthTech Women: “In the UK, about 20 percent of the Med Tech sector are female. It’s encouraging that the Middle East is breaking new ground with an increasing trend of entrepreneurial women entering this sector, and it’s great to see initiatives like this, which have a huge role to play in fostering diversity through shared experiences and learning.”
Adds Gen Ashley, director of global nonprofit organization Women Who Code: “Technology is an empowering force and can be a key emancipator for women no matter what their lifestyle or life stage. We need to see greater diversity and greater opportunity for women in this sector. It’s a vital path to progress and could open up doors to innovation we’d never dreamed of.”
The organizers said limited places are still available and candidates can register at www.miskhackathon.com.


How ‘Absher’ app liberates Saudis from government bureaucracy

The Absher website also provides information on how to report wanted persons, or administrative or financial corruption. (Supplied)
Updated 17 February 2019
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How ‘Absher’ app liberates Saudis from government bureaucracy

  • Western media mistaken in portraying app as a tool of repression, leading female journalist says

JEDDAH: Absher, the “one-click” e-services app launched by the Interior Ministry in 2015, is now regarded as the leading government platform for Saudi citizens, freeing them from bureaucratic inefficiency and endless queuing for everyday services.
However, in a recent New York Times article, the app was criticized as a “tool of repression” following claims by Democratic Senator Ron Wyden and women’s rights groups.
Apple and Google were urged to remove the application from their devices over claims that it “enables abhorrent surveillance and control of women.”
In an official statement, the ministry rejected the allegations and said the Absher platform centralized more than 160 different services for all members of society, including women, the elderly and people with special needs.
The app makes electronic government services available for beneficiaries to access directly at any time and from any place in the Kingdom, the ministry said.
Absher allows residents of the Kingdom to make appointments, renew IDs, passports, driver’s licenses, car registration and other services with one click.
Many Saudis still recall having to queue at government agencies, such as passport control offices and civil affairs departments, for a variety of official procedures. Appointments could take weeks to arrange, with people relying on their green files, or “malaf allagi” — the 1980s and 1990s paper form of Absher that was known as the citizen’s “lifeline,” both figuratively and literally.
Hours would be spent as government departments ferried files back and forth, and if a form was lost, the whole transaction process would have to start again. As complicated as it was for men, women suffered more.
Muna Abu Sulayman, an award-winning strategy adviser and media personality, told Arab News the introduction of Absher had helped strengthen women’s rights.
Sulayman said she was disappointed at comments on the e-services platform being made abroad. “There are consequences that people don’t understand. It’s a very idealistic and naive way of understanding what is going on,” she said.
“The discussion on the guardianship law is internal and ongoing — it is something that has to be decided by our society and not as a result of outside pressure. We’re making strides toward equality and Absher is a step in the right direction,” she said.
“In a Twitter survey, I asked how many women have access to their guardian’s Absher. Most answered that they control their own fate. Men who don’t believe in controlling women gave them access to their Absher and that shows an increase in the participation of women in their own decision-making.”
Absher also provides services such as e-forms, dealing with Hajj eligibility, passport control, civil affairs, public services, traffic control, and medical appointments at government hospitals.
The platform is available to all men and women, and removes much of the bureaucracy and time wasting associated with nonautomated administrative systems.
On the issue of granting women travel permits, the law requires a male guardian to grant it through the portal, as well as for men under the age of 21.
Retired King Abdullah University professor Dr. Zainab M. Zain told Arab News: “I always had issues with my passport renewal as well as my children’s as they are both non-Saudi. For years it was risky not to follow up properly at passport control — you never knew what could happen, but now I can renew their permits by paying their fees online through Absher from the comfort of my home in Abu Dhabi.”
Ehsanul Haque, a Pakistani engineer who has lived in the Kingdom for more than 30 years, said: “Absher has helped tremendously with requests, such as exit and entry visas for my family and myself. I can receive approval within an hour whereas once it would’ve taken me days,” he said.
“The platform has eased many of my troubles.”
The Absher website also provides information on how to report wanted persons, or administrative or financial corruption.
In April, 2018, the ministry launched “Absher Business,” a technical initiative to transfer its business services to an interactive digital system.
With an annual fee of SR2,000 ($533), business owners such as Marwan Bukhary, owner of Gold Sushi Club Restaurant in Jeddah, used the portal to help manage his workers’ needs in his expanding business.
“There are many features in Absher that helps both individual and establishment owners,” he said. “I took advantage of the great features it provided, and it saved me a lot of time and trouble and also my restaurant workers. It’s a dramatic change. When Absher Business was launched last year, it organized how I needed to manage my workers’ work permits.
“Through the system, I could see the status of all my employees, renew their permits, grant their exit and entry visas, and have their permits delivered to my house or my business through the post after paying the fees. It saved business owners a lot of time and energy.
“I used to have to do everything manually myself or have my courier help. I believe it’s the government’s most advanced system yet with more features being added every now and then,” Bukhary said.
“Absher has eased our burden, unlike the old days when we needed to visit government offices and it would take four weeks just to get an appointment. One click is all it takes now.”