Hackathon taps Bangladeshi youth for social impact

Nonprofit BRAC in Bangladesh runs marathon coding session in hope of hacking new solutions for social good

Last weekend, Jisan Haider, 18, spent 14 hours toiling away at his computer, taking just a one or two-hour break before restarting work. His efforts paid off. He and his five-strong team, Reboot, were among seven winners of a hackathon, held by the nonprofit BRAC in Bangladesh, to develop apps for social good. “It was the best experience of my life,” said Haider.

The young Bangladeshi programmer was the lead developer for Reboot, which developed a prototype 3D gaming app that teaches players how to spot and prevent tuberculosis (TB). It was the first time he and his team had applied their technological talents to a social problem.

“There is no platform for us [normally] to get into NGOs to use our apps for our country. We found it very interesting,” he said.

Some 120 app developers in 27 teams participated in the ‘BRACathon’ – a 36-hour marathon coding session held between 4 and 5 December. The seven winning entries received up to $3,000 to develop the prototypes into working apps. They each came up with technology-based apps able to deliver social impact in Bangladesh; ranging from a system to manage data from microfinance loans to an app to help BRAC’s 100,000 employees keep track of HR policies.

“As a developer the main difficulty was making it fun,” said Haider. “Nobody wants to learn [about TB] by reading stuff, so making it fun was tough.”

Reboot’s game idea has three levels. Players interact with locals in a virtual village, progressing from identifying symptoms of the disease, to hospital treatment and then to prevention methods. Each level is played against the clock, with time added or deducted according to how well the player does.

“In the last part there is a multiple-choice section, and there we are going to add an online leader board maybe, so it will be competitive,” Haider added.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 1.5 million people globally died in 2014 from TB, and 9.6 million fell ill. The vaccine-preventable lung disease, which spreads through the air from person to person, is on the decline worldwide; but remains a primary public health threat – in part because of the development of drug-resistant forms of the bacteria. Of the more than 190,000 TB cases identified in Bangladesh, 994 sufferers were found to have drug-resistant TB, according to BRAC. The WHO registered some 480,000 cases globally of drug-resistant TB last year.

The hackathon approach taps into a younger, new slant towards solving entrenched problems, according to the NGO. “Most people in the aid industry think in a traditional way of how development should be,” said Rakib Avi, communications and partnership manager, BRAC. “There is a lot of enthusiasm among the young generation of Bangladesh to implement technology… We want to leverage that energy and channel people into thinking about problems in a different way.”

“Even if just 10 per cent of the ideas [developed through the hackathon] come to realisation, that would be a win for everyone,” he added.

The winning app ideas will benefit from input and guidance from BRAC’s technology team. The NGO will also help each team to implement the idea in its programmes, an opportunity many technology solutions can’t access. “People win these coding competitions and they don’t really know where to go with it, so BRAC wants to fill that role,” said Avi.

Apart from crowding in solutions, the event also highlighted the need to engage the country’s educated youth who might otherwise seek jobs abroad. “Maybe if he or she gets the due recognition, if the solution gets somewhere and is able to help people, then they might think this is something worth pursing and choose to stay here and think about problems at home,” said Avi.

Reboot’s Haider agrees he was not aware before the event of how developers like him could be involved in social innovation. His team initially formed to develop a commercial game based on a film, before entering BRACathon. “We never thought we could do something for our country like this, through a hackathon.”