Seeking tech fixes for aid projects, Myanmar hold first hackathon

Low phone penetration and spotty Internet access have held back Myanmar, previously called Burma, but foreign investment and aid could unlock its fledgling tech sector. 

Khin Maung Win/AP
Newspaper staff working at their office in Yangon, Myanmar, on March 11, 2014. Myanmar has among the lowest mobile and Internet penetration rates in East Asia. It recently held its first hackathon, a sign of an emerging tech industry.

It's a Saturday afternoon and Ye Lin Aung has been holed up in an office all night. He and a group of friends have been working through the night on a mobile app that would help farmers to protect their crops.

They are competing in Myanmar's first-ever hackathon, a 48-hour contest to create tech-based solutions for some of the country's pressing development challenges.

Ye Lin Aung, a software engineer, and the other members of team NilBug have carved out a workspace among the other hackers. Their cluster of tables is partitioned by whiteboards that are scrawled with notes on the app's functions and reminders for the developers. Other groups have similar set-ups, and a ready supply of Red Bull and Nescafé instant coffee.

It would be a familiar scene in San Francisco or New York. But not so Myanmar, a country where a slim segment of the population has access to phones and the vast majority of people have never been online. 

After decades of military rule and isolation, Myanmar has begun opening up to international aid and investment. Its telecoms industry lags far behind neighbors like Thailand and India: mobile phone penetration is roughly ten percent; even fewer have access to the Internet.

Despite this low connectivity, Myanmar’s tech community is growing. Tech events such as this hackathon, and broader collaboration between coders and do-gooders, may yield technology solutions for development and humanitarian issues.

"The potential to do really good work, to use tech to solve real problems, is so clear," said David Madden, founder of Code for Change Myanmar, which helped organize last week’s hackathon in Myanmar’s main city, Yangon.

Apps for aid projects

At the hackathon kick-off at the headquarters of Qatari telecom Ooredoo, one of the sponsors, representatives of Myanmar-based NGOs laid out the challenges for the team: to come up with a tech fix for a specific task. These ranged from how to reach sex workers to educate them about HIV/AIDS to crowdsourcing election monitoring for next year’s presidential vote.

Eighty-three people joined the hackathon and split into 17 teams. At the end, a panel of four judges gave each team three minutes to present their app or website. 

NilBug won the competition with an app that would allow farmers to look up which pesticides were best to use on their crops, and to swap tips with other farmers on pest prevention.

For participants like Ye Lin Aung, the hackathon allowed him to meet tech professionals who work in the start-up scenes in Myanmar and in places such as Australia and Singapore. "It's very exciting and challenging," he says.

While last week’s hackathon was the first of its kind, Myanmar has hosted other donor-funded tech events, including a BarCamp meet-up in Yangon in February that drew more than 5,000 participants. The previous month, a US embassy-supported TechCamp brought together more than 150 civil society activists for training in tech skills. BarCamp events have also been held in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city.

"There's so much energy and so much passion and when you create the right environment, these young people in Myanmar just grab it with both hands," Madden said.

No panacea for poverty

While enthusiasts say that widespread tech literacy and access could lead to improvements in Myanmar’s fledgling democratic institutions, it's no panacea for a country torn by ethnic-based conflicts, grinding rural poverty, and political divisions that no smartphone app can fix. Twenty-six percent of the population lives below the poverty line, according to the UN Office for Project Services. Starved for decades of investment, public infrastructure is decrepit and overwhelmed. 

A spokesman from the US embassy in Yangon said digital literacy could support efforts in Myanmar toward better governance and economic growth. It could also bolster education by allowing schools to connect with counterparts in other countries, and improve communication with groups in rural areas.

Phil Morle, CEO of Pollenizer, a Australia-based company that helps start-ups in Asia and Australia, believes Myanmar is ripe for a digital revolution because of "latent interest combined with the on switch about to be ticked with the Internet."

New phone licenses

The “on switch” for Myanmar is the promise of affordable mobile telephony. Last year, the government issued two cellular phone licenses to Ooredoo and Telenor, a Norwegian telecom. Both are now building national cellular networks with a goal of 80 percent mobile phone penetration by 2015.

"I think there's an extraordinary shift about to happen," Morle said.

For now, tech developers struggle with slow Internet speeds as they work to build new products. Ooredoo will begin rolling out services in mid-2014, according to Lorna McPherson, chief marketing officer at Ooredoo Myanmar. Telenor has announced plans to launch mobile services by the third quarter of this year. Both companies say that within five years the vast majority of people should have access to cell services. 

Myo Htet Aung, an android developer who participated in the hackathon, sums up the attitude of many in the tech community. "I love to share my knowledge in the community like this... (but) we still need to do a lot of improvement."

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