Geek teams on two continents write poverty-breaking apps for Kenya

The Nov. 20-22 Poverty Hackathon will be the first international development-focused virtual hackathon. A panel of judges will choose a winning idea.

Thomas Mukoya/Reuters/File
A delegate checks applications on a smartphone during the launch of the Windows 10 operating system in Kenya's capital, Nairobi, in July.

Powered by caffeine and adrenalin, hundreds of Kenyan and Canadian geeks will compete over Skype in a 28-hour "hackathon" to develop apps to improve rural Kenyans' health, farms, and access to education.

Hackathons are marathon brainstorming sessions where computer programmers get together to write software.

The Nov. 20-22 Poverty Hackathon will be the first international development-focused virtual hackathon – taking place on two continents simultaneously, the organizers say.

"While it's not common for hackathons to have virtual teams working together, we think it's a core component of actually making impact," said Canadian Danielle Thé, who set up the charity Devs Without Borders in Toronto earlier this year.

"While people want to help, our concepts of what the major problems or roadblocks are for individuals in other countries could be very biased," said Thé, 26.

New technologies brought by outsiders often fail because the donors don't understand the local context, such as whether there are teachers to show children how to use donated laptops or how to protect valuable solar panels from theft.

Devs Without Borders is partnering with iHub, the best-known incubator for the East African nation's blossoming technology community to ensure the geeks don't make this mistake.

"It's about understanding who is going to use the application and the exact scenario in which they will use it," said John Paul Karijo, iHub's community manager. "You have to think... about... the human being at the center of the problem."

A panel of judges will choose a winning idea for testing in January by the Toronto-based charity Free the Children, which has education, healthcare, and agriculture projects in 18 remote villages in Kenya's Maasai Mara region.

"What's really unique about it [the hackathon] is it's specifically going to be developing SMS app technology," said Toronto-based Sarah MacIndoe, Free The Children's director of international programs.

The focus on implementation is what attracted iHub. "In the past we've had experiences where solutions from hackathons just remain hackathon solutions," said Karijo.

"They don't get applied anywhere."

'Hackathon' teams will work together writing code for apps that could provide information on maternal health and first aid, or encourage families to send their daughters to school.

Most Kenyan families are off the grid but have simple mobile phones which they charge for a small fee in nearby kiosks.

Multinationals are waking up to potential markets in the developing world and trying to boost their internet usage.

Facebook's internet.org, recently renamed Free Basics, partners with local mobile phone providers to give users free access to online services like the encyclopedia Wikipedia, job listings, and health information, as well as Facebook.

The project, launched in Zambia in 2013 and extended to more than a dozen other countries, has brought more than 9 million people online, Facebook says.

Google is spending millions of dollars on satellites, high-altitude balloons, and drones to extend internet access to an estimated 4.5 billion unwired people around the world.

"There is really a space for developers around the world to provide more services for individuals that are going to be on the internet for the first time in the next couple of years," said Thé.

"We need to connect developers to those opportunities."

Kenya is one of the most technologically advanced countries in Africa, known for its pioneering Mpesa mobile money transfer application.

The Maasai and Kipsigis people that Free the Children work with in the Maasai Mara are already familiar with SMS-based apps, using them for mobile banking and money transfers, MacIndoe said.

One Toronto participant will be Francine Navarro, a 24-year-old software developer who visited Free the Children's projects in Kenya three years ago.

Startled on that trip by a girl asking if there was female genital mutilation in Canada, Navarro began thinking about the role technology can play in improving women's rights – for example enabling women to blog about injustices they experience.

"Technology can become a force for social change," she said.

• Reporting by Katy Migiro, editing by Tim Pearce. The original story ran at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking, and corruption. Visit www.trust.org.

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