I was fortunate to attend and provide a problem statement for the London WaterHackathon in 2011. A year later I'm very fortunate to be an organiser for the next iteration; Sanitation Hackathon. The hackathon will grapple with the global sanitation crisis: 2.5 billion lack access to basic sanitation and 1.5 billion have no sanitation facilities at all. Consequently, those 1.5 billion people defecate in the open.
For me, the WaterHack experience was phenomenal. It was a chance to collaborate with intelligent, innovative and motivated people while working on one of the biggest development challenge; the supply of water. In London the Taarifa team first came together during WaterHack. We designed and built a system that would take reports from either citizens or government and place them in an interface and a workflow for administrators. Once a crowdsourced report came in you needed to action it. We worked well as a team so after the hackathon we stuck together and formed a community. We deployed the platform with the World Bank and other partners in a few countries. At the same time we created the Taarifa Organisation to support the Taarifa project.
Ensuring a legacy from any hackathon is important and the Sanitation Hackathon is no different. Having hackers turn up, write some code and leave isn't sustainable. Part of the solution is to facilitate communication with other sites. Instead of competing, open source software is about collaboration. The same applies here. The different sites will communicate with each other, so what happens in Dar Es Salaam isn't replicated in London and vice-versa.
Another critical piece is ensuring that the right tools and environment are there for the participants. During the hackathon in London and Dar Es Salaam we’ll aim to have server space available for teams to use during the hackathon. This will also mean their hacks (if server side) will be available online. This is so others can see their work and functionality during the event as well as after, potentially getting feedback from problem statement owners, NGOs and Ministries. All the code will be open source and available on Github so more hackers can develop on top of the solutions. Technically for the event we aim to have blisteringly fast internet, a lot of power points with a few spare Raspberry Pi and Arduino boards available for hardware hacking.
Due to the rise of the maker movement and cheap customisable hardware it’s important to stress that a hackathon isn’t just about software, hardware is equally important (An important distinction here is that software in the sanitation sector generally refers to behaviors, but here refers to actual software, such as programs.) The equilibrium between software and hardware has been at play within the IT industry since its inception. The hackathons in London will aim to address the global sanitation challenges, however if we can facilitate the right environment then hopefully the right (and best) solutions, hardware or software, will result.