Arab world’s hackathons discover a coronavirus-era purpose

Special Arab world’s hackathons discover a coronavirus-era purpose
Participants including Saudi women attend a hackathon in Jeddah on August 1, 2018, prior to the start of the annual Hajj pilgrimage in the holy city of Mecca. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 29 August 2020

Arab world’s hackathons discover a coronavirus-era purpose

Arab world’s hackathons discover a coronavirus-era purpose
  • Programming competitions generating innovative products aimed at solving public-health challenges
  • Organizers say investment sorely needed for concepts produced during hackathons to become reality

DUBAI: Among its other effects, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the shortage of doctors, nurses and other health care professionals worldwide.
Aggravating the problem is the fact that identifying and meeting staff needs can be a complex and time-consuming process.
Enter Health Hero Match, a website designed to connect medical workers with hospitals facing real-time personnel shortages.
Created by a team of students from seven universities across the UAE, Jordan and the US, the project was the winner of this year’s Annual NYUAD (New York University Abu Dhabi) International Hackathon for Social Good in the Arab World.

‘Hacking a way out of the coronavirus’ - NYUAD Hackathon group photo. (Supplied)

“We earnestly believe Health Hero Match can make a positive change in the world. This pandemic showed that the problem we address is a very real one, and there will always be a need for the most effective utilization of our frontline heroes,” said Mate Hekfusz, development team member and NYUAD student.
“Our task now is to take it from hackathon lightning-in-a-bottle to a fully realized application which can be deployed to health care sectors around the world.”
The NYUAD project is just one example of how COVID-19 hackathons have been leveraged to find desperately needed solutions across the medical, business and lifestyle sectors in the new normal.
These sprint-like events were first popularized by the software community as round-the-clock crowdsourcing sessions to solve specific technical problems.
The biggest hackathons can draw thousands of participants from different countries and age groups.

More than 3,000 software developers and 18,000 computer and information-technology enthusiasts from more than 100 countries take part in Hajj hackathon in Jeddah. (AFP/File Photo)

In April, over 15,000 coders, engineers and designers joined The Global Hack, an initiative supported by LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and former Y-Combinator President Sam Altman.
The EU, the World Health Organization and UNESCO have all announced or held similar events.
In the Gulf, Dubai launched its One Million Arab Coders COVID-19 Hackathon, with a total of $50,000 in prize money available to software developers who produce innovative solutions linked to the coronavirus outbreak.
Saudi Arabia recently announced cash prizes of $250,000 for its Hope Hackathon, which focused on digital health, home entertainment and e-sports.


READ MORE: Seeds of hope as Saudi hackathon harnesses artificial intelligence


In May, nearly 500 people participated in the #MBRUHacksCOVID19 hackathon organized by the Mohammed bin Rashid University of Medicine and Health Sciences and the American University of Sharjah, among others.
The winning solution, Bounceback, used machine learning algorithms and tokenization to identify, verify and provide immediate subsidy relief to vulnerable communities and individuals affected financially by the health crisis.
Hundreds of new ideas have already emerged from such events. In India, women in tech have shown how blockchain can help check counterfeit prescription drugs.

Participants including Saudi women attend a hackathon in Jeddah on August 1, 2018. (AFP/File Photo)

The Jordan Pandemic Hackathon produced Healthtech, which helps epidemiological teams track infection locations using crowdsourced data.
Netsahem, a payment solutions designer that enables Egyptian NGOs to manage their finances online, came first in Cairo’s SeekNotHide Hackathon this April, while UAE fintech startup PointCheckout won the EUvsVirus Hackathon.
What happens to the winners of a hackathon? For Hekfusz and his team, the publicity was enough — they were approached by several startup incubators and accelerators, and took one of the opportunities offered.
For those not as fortunate, a matchathon is the next logical step forward. At these pitch events, innovators get together with investors, corporations, public authorities, academia and other backers to scale up and commercialize their products.

NYUAD’s project is just one example of how COVID-19 hackathons have been leveraged to find desperately needed solutions across the medical, business and lifestyle sectors in the new normal. (AFP/File Photo)

“COVID-19 is providing us with this incredible reset opportunity with the rapid acceleration of trends like video conferencing, online commerce, and an opportunity to inspire and mobilize humanity as one race to work toward restoring our planet — things we waited for years to happen,” said Dhruv Boruah, founder of CommonVC.
The London-based impact sustainability incubator and angel syndicate is behind a recent environment-focused hackathon and a follow-up pitch day at the end of June.
The contest drew 70 teams of 900 participants from 79 countries. The matchathon saw those whittled down to 12. Investment details are yet to be made public.
According to Boruah, investment is sorely needed for hackathon concepts to become reality. “Let us invest in innovation since (it) is the only way out of this crisis. This is going to be hard, but so was going to the moon,” he said.


This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.