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Tech Experts Brainstorm Solutions to Water Problems at “Hackathons” in 10 Cities

October 20, 2011

  • Tech experts will brainstorm solutions to water problems at 48-hour “water hackathons” in 10 cities over the next several days.
  • The events give local IT communities a chance to get involved in pressing development issues not normally part of their work.
  • 'Hackers' will select from more than 70 problems submitted by subject-matter experts, and begin to create applications for cell phones and other devices.

October 20, 2011 – How can researchers and farmers get accurate weather data in the high Andes, to gauge the effects of climate change? What is the best way for people in rapidly growing Kenyan cities to report water service interruptions and hold providers accountable?  Is there an easier and cheaper way for people in rural Uganda to pay their water bills?

Solutions to these and other water problems could emerge over the next several days as tech experts brainstorm at “water hackathons” in 10 cities around the world.

The World Bank and the Water and Sanitation Program are bringing together participants for the 48-hour sessions in collaboration with technology partners NASA, Google, Hewlett Packard, Microsoft and Yahoo.

Computer programmers and designers will volunteer their time in Lima, Lagos, Kampala and Nairobi, among other cities. They will select from more than 70 problems submitted by subject-matter experts and other stakeholders, and begin to create applications for cell phones and other devices.

The goal is to find innovative solutions to water management issues that aren’t easily resolved by water experts alone, and to take advantage of now-ubiquitous mobile phones, mobile internet access, and social media tools to increase citizen participation and transparency in the water sector.

“Water is at the heart of some of the world's most pressing development challenges,” says Jose Luis Irigoyen, World Bank Director for Transport, Water, and Information and Communication Technologies. “At the intersection of technology and consumer-related data, we are seeing new opportunities to create and effectively use non-traditional solutions.”

ʽLet’s See What These Hackers Can Do’

In Africa, it’s been noted that more people have mobile phones than toilets. India – a global information technology leader –has the largest population of poor people that don’t have access to clean water and sanitation. An estimated 500 million people there lack access to safe sanitation and more than 120 million to safe drinking water.

Water and Sanitation Program (WSP) Manager Jaehyang So says the Bangalore, India, water hackathon gives the local IT community a chance to get involved in pressing development issues not normally part of their work.

“Let’s see what these hackers can do to help a really critical problem,” says So.

The hackathons are a kind of “speed dating event between two very different animals – ICT and water,” says Isabelle Huynh, a Bank ICT senior operations officer. They give the information technology and water communities a chance to meet and work together. The challenge is to sustain the effort once the event is over. “The Bank can play a role in facilitating an ecosystem that promotes innovation, incubation and venture capital,” she says.

Among the issues that could be addressed in India:  difficulties in tracking water consumption in cities; the need to promote use of community toilets in slums and create awareness of water and sanitation issues.

In Kenya, hackers will have the opportunity to develop a mobile-to web complaint system to make sure consumer complaints about poor water quality, disconnections, or leaks are received and acted on, and feedback data is systematically gathered and monitored. Such an app would complement efforts of Water Action Groups that have been helping citizens resolve complaints.

“We don’t know which problems the hackers are going to choose,” says Julia Bucknall, manager of the World Bank’s water program.

“We know which ones are big problems, but we can’t easily judge – and this is exactly the point of this activity –what’s solvable by this community. If we could, we wouldn’t need a hackathon.”

A Chance to Transform Lives

For many participants, the hackathon will be the first time they will work on water problems in their own countries, says Daniel Shemie, a junior professional associate at the Bank and a hackathon organizer. Such local “ownership” of problems and solutions is important to the hackathons’ success, to increase the chance applications are followed up on and developed, he says.

 “I think it’s almost always the cause that people care about most,” says Zach Wilson, 31, a Washington, DC, entrepreneur in mapping and data visualization.

“Obviously, the prospect of having some clear recognition of one’s work, some sort of prize is meaningful too. But, it’s as much about the community coming together and working with people with common interests and solving hard problems, and then the prize is kind of a bonus. It’s like starting a successful business. Often the entrepreneur wants to solve a problem, and that’s foremost in the entrepreneur’s mind, and if successful, it might be quite profitable.”

Bucknall says she hopes the hackathons will give participants “an opportunity to learn things, to have some fun, and potentially to transform lives.” 

“That doesn’t just mean the lives of people who can benefit from this product, but also the lives of the hackers themselves. If you realize development challenges are solvable and not just some big problem out there that can’t be helped-- but that actually little incremental steps can make a difference -- people might switch from working on video games to working on water.”

The first ever global WaterHackathon follows the model set by Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK), a partnership among Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, NASA, HP and the World Bank. The first RHoK event in November 2009 gave rise to applications such as I’m Ok! and Tweak the Tweet, which were used in emergency response operations following the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

The general public is invited to follow the water hackathons live on Twitter at #waterhack.