Over One Thousand “Hackers” Find 181 New Apps to Improve Access to Safe Sanitation for Poor People

December 5, 2012

WASHINGTON, December 5, 2012 – More than a thousand computer programmers and other information technology specialists in 40 cities around the world developed 181 new application software, or apps, this past weekend to help improve access to safe sanitation for the 2.5 billion poor people who lack it.  The “hackers” competed for 48 hours in the first ever global Sanitation Hackathon.

The need for innovative solutions to the chronic lack of sanitation worldwide is immense. Of those people who lack access to improved sanitation, 1.1 billion have no facilities at all and defecate in the open. These sanitation shortages account for thousands of deaths daily, especially among children. Additionally, poor sanitation costs billions of dollars in economic losses annually, as high as 7 percent of GDP in some countries.  “That’s billions of dollars that could educate poor children or help build infrastructure - like schools and roads,” said World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim.

Conversely, more than 6 billion people worldwide have access to a mobile phone, including in rural and urban areas in developing countries.  The surge in mobile phones in Africa - some 94 percent of urban Africans, for example, are near a GSM signal - is transforming the way people complete daily tasks, from knowing when to sell farm commodities, to finding easier ways to pay bills or send money to family and friends. With ever increasing mobile penetration and falling prices of smart phones, mobile applications provide a platform to address myriad critical issues and an opportunity to solve problems in the developing world.

“Across the word in places where people do not have access to sanitation, we see those people with cell phones," said Rachel Kyte, World Bank Vice President for Sustainable Development.  "The barriers to accessing sanitation are many and varied. Technology is not a silver bullet, but we wanted to find out whether for example mobile or location based technologies could remove any of those barriers. It turns out they can."

The global Sanitation Hackathon, as the 2011 Water Hackathon before it, follows the model set by Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK), in which subject matter experts and local stakeholders submit problem statements which are then tackled by volunteer software developers who use the latest technology tools to create innovative solutions. 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.

One of the new apps developed over the weekend, called “Mapsh,” could enable the government of India to more easily verify communities that have achieved open-defecation free (ODF) status, for which villages are rewarded as part of the country’s Total Sanitation Campaign.  Mapsh is designed to use a mobile crowd-sourcing tool to assist in the verification process of ODF communities. Other apps tackled behavior-change challenges to sanitation and hygiene problems, such as using mobile educational games to begin changing the attitudes and practices among children related to handwashing.

Another app developed over the weekend is an SMS- and location-based system that tracks pit latrine/septic tank-emptying in Accra, which will help improve the efficiency of the collection process and the accountability of the disposal process (tracking of truck movements and illegal dumping).

In a video welcome message, Dr. Kim told the hackers their expertise could impact the lives of the world’s poorest people.  “With your help, we want to tackle this massive challenge.  The availability of mobile phones is a game changer because of mobile technology, which has created enormous opportunities.  We believe there are technological solutions that can help us provide sanitation for more poor people and can save more children from preventable diseases.  You could be the very people who create the tools for a solution that helps families, villages and maybe whole countries to tackle the sanitation challenge at a large scale.”

The next phase, the online “Hack at Home” sanitation app challenge ( ), 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, towards apps that are stable and ready for deployment.  The challenge will culminate in a spring 2013 awards ceremony.

The Sanitation Hackathon was organized by the World Bank Group in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Random Hacks of Kindness (RHOK), Eirene, UNICEF, and many other partners at local sites, such as Blackberry, Google Developers, IBM, Infosys, Microsoft, Nokia, Sprint, and Unilever.  The Sanitation Hackathon took place in: Atlanta, Cape Town, Dakar, Dar es Salaam, Dhaka, Hartford (CT), Helsinki, Jakarta, Kampala, Lahore, Lima, London, Los Angeles, Manila, Montreal, New York, Philadelphia, Pune, Sacramento, San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto, Vancouver, and Washington, DC.  Another 28 satellite cities contributed through RHOK, the global and regional partners of which include Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, NASA, HP, the World Bank, and DiUS (Australia).

The first Water Hackathon was organized by the World Bank Group in 2011, in which nearly 1,000 registered IT professionals at 10 global locations developed apps for improving delivery of water services.