In South Asia, Hundreds Hack Away at Sanitation Challenges

December 7, 2012


  • 2.5 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation worldwide, costing countries billions and causing disease and death.
  • The Sanitation Hackathon was a global event that aimed to harness the power of information technology to address sanitation challenges.
  • In India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, hundreds of participants came up with innovative solutions for “problem statements” ranging from ending open defecation to rating public toilets.

In dozens of cities across the world on Dec. 1 and 2, more than 1,000 hackers participated in the Sanitation Hackathon, aimed at addressing the 2.5 billion people who lack access to sanitation. Hackers showed up in full force, forgoing sleep, to help find technology solutions to sanitation challenges. The issue is particularly urgent in South Asia, where 500,000 children die each year from diarrheal diseases and poor sanitation contributes to the region’s acute malnutrition. Poor sanitation also costs Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan combined more than $50 billion each year.

Ahead of the event, sanitation experts submitted problem statements, ranging from open defecation to waste management control to rating public toilets. As more people have access to a mobile phone than to a toilet, opportunities exist to leverage technology to connect with rural communities, gather data on behaviors, transmit knowledge, and provide incentives. And while South Asia’s participation speaks to the urgency of the problem in the region, it also highlights the enormous pool of technology talent, the strong government commitment, and an engaged youth community.

Tapping the IT Network

In India, the Sanitation Hackathon was hosted at the Pune campus of Infosys, a global IT leader. IT professionals worked through the weekend to create 18 innovative solutions.

"One in every 10 deaths in India is due to poor sanitation. That means 768,000 deaths in India every year,” said Onno Ruhl, World Bank country director for India. “I hope that the Sanitation Hackathon brings sanitation challenges from experts to the fore, and will yield the solutions from India's vibrant tech community. It would be especially good if these solutions would improve accountability and give a voice to poor people."

And the teams did just that. Team TernUp emerged as the winner of this year’s India Hackathon for their innovative applications on tracking toilet usage and detecting clogged pipes. In addition to the incubation period for the winning teams from Hatch, an IT incubator, the Infosys Foundation offered to review all of the ideas developed during the event, including getting feedback from experts in the field of sanitation, to help improve and further develop their solutions.

" The SanHack is a fantastic initiative because it provided a platform for both crowd-sourcing fresh ideas and involving entrepreneurs to develop solutions for the government. "

Umar Saif

Chairman, Punjab Information Technology Board

Working with Government Partners

Although aimed at developing mobile applications and support software for water and sanitation utilities, in Pakistan the Lahore Sanitation Hackathon also helped forge relationships between the IT community and the government. The faculty and administration of several universities expressed a desire to continue working with government agencies such as the Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB) and the Water and Sanitation Program to develop a culture of research and development in their fields and spread it to other sectors beyond water and sanitation, especially health, education, and energy.

“In a recent survey about the performance of the government, water and sanitation came out to be the most important issue for the citizens,” said Umar Saif, chairman of PITB. “The SanHack is a fantastic initiative because it provided a platform for both crowd-sourcing fresh ideas and involving entrepreneurs to develop solutions for the government.”

Saif put his support behind the unique initiative by offering PITB’s resources and announced fully funded incubation contracts for two winning teams.

Engaging Young People

In Bangladesh, hundreds of 20somethings devoted their weekend to develop IT solutions for sanitation challenges. It was believed to be the biggest hackathon ever held in Dhaka, underscoring the potential for hackathons as a crowd-sourcing approach to development challenges.

“This hackathon is something different because we are solving real-life problems. It is the first time I am participating in anything like this,” said hackathon participant Nur Alam Zico.

In Dhaka one of the favorite apps was a data matchmaking map that cross-references the needs of localities with NGO resources. Another favorite was a personal coach, communicating in Bangla, which uses artificial intelligence to learn behavior patterns.

Keep On Hacking

To ensure that the hackathon is just the start of the engagement, incubator support is provided to the winners from all sites. In addition, the online “Hack at Home” sanitation app challenge, open to all participants and newcomers, raises the bar and increases the sense of competition from the local level to the global level.  It enables hackers who created apps this past weekend to continue working on their prototypes with the support of global online mentors, toward apps that are stable and ready for deployment. The challenge will culminate in a spring 2013 awards ceremony.