Paris, 15 December, 3pm. It is a beautiful winter’s afternoon, and 42 (France’s first free, peer-to-peer computer science school) is filled with students who dedicate their Sundays to work. On the first floor, in an open space, around thirty people, divided into groups, are sitting around tables working at their computers. The atmosphere is studious and convivial at the same time. In less than an hour, they will all be presenting the results of a weekend of work.
These people are here because they are participating in a hackathon, called “Hack the Future Now!”, co-organised by Arizuka (the first crowdfunding platform dedicated to social innovation, solidarity and sustainability), the Club Jade (an independent think tank that promotes democracy, innovation and Europe) and danone.communities, with a handful of partners. It is the conclusion of a week-long event held across France, the Social Good Week, highlighting how technology can contribute to building a better world.
The goal of the hackathon is to come up with ideas for websites, mobile applications and devices
to help reach the Millennium Development Goals and, in the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, rescue the victims of natural disasters.
As Ksenia Ermoshina, a Russian innovation sociologist who is currently writing a thesis about civic apps, puts it: “Hackathons adopt a specific innovation method that is issue-oriented. They strive to solve puzzles. » Held both at 42 and at Simplon.co (a “solidarity web school” teaching entrepreneurship and digital development to underprivileged young people), Hack the Future Now! brings together people willing to contribute their imagination and skills to find new, innovative solutions.
Different worlds meet
How can technology help solve social and environmental issues? Three months ago, during the 6th edition of Convergences 2015’s World Forum, the forum audience was asked that question. More specifically, they were asked to work on ideas for mobile applications that could help achieve several Millennium Development Goals. Hack the Future Now! built on these ideas and on new ones – with the additional goal of providing solutions to help with natural disasters. On Friday night, all participants attended a brainstorming session, at the end of which the projects were defined and the working teams constituted. For two whole days, a total of 40 people worked hard, shared their expertise, used their imagination and came up with a handful of ideas. They are now one hour away from presenting the result.
Aurélien Meunier, from Arizuka, is happy to see that most of the participants are familiar with the hacking world and are used to participating in hackathons (several of them are actually students at 42 and Simplon.co): “they find out about civic, social and environmental challenges that they were not necessarily aware of, take them very seriously and bring their expertise to these issues.” Miora Ranaivoarinosy, with danone.communities, sees a major opportunity in this connection with people from different spheres: “The reason I believe danone.communities should co-organise these types of hackathons is that
true digital culture thrives on the same values as social innovation,
but neither group realises! For example, the practices of open collaboration, flat structures and reclaiming our own means of development (that is where hacking starts) are very strong in the activist digital world, and social business should connect with that culture to increase impact. That is why hackathons are very hands-on opportunities to make that connection fruitful. » Either way, she sees mutual enrichment in the co-creation process itself. Ksenia Ermoshina insists that the hacker culture “breaks a monopoly in terms of knowledge production and diffusion. It offers an alternative model for sharing expertise.”
Technology to serve rescue teams
It is now 4pm and seven projects are successively presented on the stage. The first one is called the “Save Yourself Project”, an educational and collaborative platform where people can share their DIY tricks to turn whatever they have at hand into useful devices in the event of a disaster – or to prevent one. For instance, how to make drinking water using a bucket, a stick and a sheet. The platform is also designed to be available offline: it can be printed and handed out to populations in need.
Three other projects tackle issues related to natural disasters. Take “Dnail”. Based on the fact that human nails contain DNA information for over ten years, the team suggests using them to identify, list and locate the dead. Using a first-aider kit capable of removing one fingernail, storing it and locating the body it comes from (with a smartphone), Dnail would help survivors find the remains of their relatives more easily. They’d just need to give a DNA sample to first-aid workers to see if there was a match somewhere.
“Connected Balloon to Rescue” tackles the telecommunications side of things. After a disaster, it often takes several days to restore all communications. CBR provides a solution to that issue, with 5 kilo, 8 cubic meter balloons parachuted in by plane and attached to the ground. These balloons provide GSM, 3G, radio and Wi-Fi networks and can send text messages automatically to identify the wounded and what they need, and pass on the information to rescue teams.
The final “natural disaster” project is related to the previous one. “SMS for Help!” is a platform that processes distress text messages to help identify key information as fast as possible. Prior to the disaster and immediately after, automatic messages are sent with a number to text in case of emergency and the information required (address, number of people injured and specific needs). All the text messages are collated on one platform where volunteer workers can sort the information and communicate it to rescue teams in the field.
Reaching educational and equality goals
Three projects chose to focus on the Millennium Development Goals, and more specifically on education and gender equality.
Based on a “gamification” approach to learning, “La Classe Corsaire” is an online app where pupils can access resources, visualise their progress in acquiring competencies, request help from the teacher or other pupils, etc.
“Beyond Two Names” focuses more specifically on women in technology. In order to give young girls role models other than Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper – tech’s two most famous women – the website offers biographies of other women who can also be a source of inspiration for future web developers.
Finally, “Equali’Notes” tackles the issue of diversity in the corporate world, with pop-ups that appear on the homepage of big companies’ websites, indicating the proportion of women leaders in the organisation. The aim is to make the under-representation of women visible; and perhaps inspire other diversity-related ideas?
At the end of the presentations, there was no winner – because everyone wins something. All teams were offered the opportunity to launch a fundraising campaign on Arizuka and assistance to publicize their project, membership of Sensecube (MakeSense’s incubator for social start-ups) and connections with various partners according to their specific needs.
Let’s hope that the projects all come into being soon. But, even if they don’t, the enthusiasm of their authors has already proved the force co-creation and imagination have to solve the world’s problems. Ksenia Ermoshina agrees: “There is a movement that public authorities are starting to understand: they realise now how powerful the multitude can be to answer the multiple problems of society.” Citizens, ready, hack!
Photo © Convergences / Antoine Chignier