The past weekend I finally got the chance to attend one of the RHOK hackathon events. These events concentrate on using technology to solve humanitarian problems such as those related to draught, overpopulation, earthquakes, etc. The current hackathon was the first to concentrate solely on water and sanitation related problems. Held in 9 cities across the world, I attended the London event, organized by fellow compatriate Julian Harou.
I was one of the first to arrive, and although there weren’t too many people we quickly had a good mix of water and tech people. The event started with pizza and calling in to various countries around the globe so the problem submitters could briefly describe the motivation behind their problem statement. There were quite a few problems, some with curious names such as “Map the crap”. Initially my interest went out to a problem that involved writing a Google Earth plugin that would enable water management people & researchers to quickly and automatically identify catchment areas for a given location. A challenging algorithmic problem I figured. Unfortunately I was one of the few (or only?) person interested in the problem & the problem submitter was not physically available. So progress would have been difficult & slow.
Instead I decided to join fellow attendee and problem owner Mark Iliffe. Mark had just started working at the World Bank and his problem revolved around extending the Ushahidi platform to improve the reporting and feedback process of complaints. If you have never heard of Ushahidi, dont worry, neither had I. Turned out is quite a useful and successful CMS system that allows users to file reports about problems in their area (broken pipes, blocked public toilets, etc.).
From the start it was great to see how enthusiastic Mark was about his team (about 4 of us). Quickly we were sketching out use case diagrams, sequence diagrams, flow charts, TODO lists, etc. I think we pretty much filled up all the white boards available. We were only about 20 minutes into this and our progress was already caught on the akvo.org blog by Mark Charmer. Great stuff.
As people were working stuff out Mark would bring on beer, biscuits, wine, and gently coerce other hackers in joining us (at peak we had about 12 people!). Star of the team was probably Caz. Ushahidi is written in php and my php foo is … well … not stellar 🙂 But no worries for Caz who did a great job of coding stuff up. The hardest part about the whole exercise was understanding the code structure (Ushadhidi uses a custom framework based on Codeigniter and Kohana). I helped around with various bits and pieces and added support for geocoding sms messages by using a custom location code (Tanzania lacks an official postcode system). We worked right up to the deadline, with our tweaked Android application only finally working during our presentation (props to Gitmeister Florian!).
Anyways, long story short. We won 🙂 The other teams had some good stuff too but I think we had the edge with Marks mad selling skills and a very clear route to sustainability. So what did we win? Not quite sure yet. Some gadgets from Google and a teleconference with some IBM guys next week. Lets see what happens. After a great social gathering at the local pub it was time to head home.
As I undertook the 2 hour journey back to Southampton it struck me again how important these kinds of events are. First of all for meeting new and interesting people, secondly for learning new stuff and learning to get something together quickly. I still have a long way to go but thats a great excuse for attending a next event 🙂