How a hackathon can solve the region’s problems

What happens when a group of people come together to work on difficult problems is not always glamorous, writes Lama Ahmed, but it can bring significant benefits

Judges at the 2016 NYUAD Hackathon wait for the start of the ceremony to announce the winners of the competition. (Delores Johnson / The National)
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What happens when you bring together people of all races, ages, genders and geographies to tackle today’s social issues through technology? Every April, students, mentors and judges from all over the world gather at NYU Abu Dhabi with their laptops and ideas to do just that and to contribute to social good in the Arab world.

With all the good technology can do, it is surprising that the field is currently quite homogeneous. Without ethnic, racial, geographic and gender diversity, so many crucial perspectives are neglected. This is the problem that the “NYU Abu Dhabi International Hackathon for Social Good”, which finishes tomorrow evening, is working to overcome. Studies have shown again and again that as diversity within a team increases, so does its productivity, innovation and financial returns.

Last year, the NYU Abu Dhabi hackathon had 50 per cent female participation. Participants flew in from all corners of the globe to the UAE. The diversity of this year’s hackathon is better still.

Much of the work that is done around social issues comes from a western-centric perspective. The NYU Abu Dhabi hackathon provides a new lens through which to approach social issues in the dynamic and ever-changing Middle East and North Africa region. And NYU Abu Dhabi specifically incubates the value of knowledge that diversity can produce, making it the perfect meeting point for these ideas.

In 2016, the winning team at the NYU Abu Dhabi hackathon produced an application called “Qusasat” or Arabic snippets. Qusasat is a crowdsourcing solution for Arabic text digitisation by allowing users who can read and type Arabic on their phones to translate text images, and collect points that can be donated or cashed.

The social advantages behind this idea are increasing Arabic digital content and acting as an additional source of income for Arabic speakers to ultimately improve optical character recognition technology in Arabic.

Other projects include Sadiki, a personal assistant for refugees, and Fahmt, an in-line translator for informal Arabic and English. Mentors and students continued research and work towards this project even after the hackathon was over.

The formation of ideas is truly one of the unique and most valuable aspects of this hackathon. A person who has never lived in the Middle East, where Arabic literature accessibility might be a problem, may not be aware of the existing issue.

However, they may have an idea of how to solve this problem that is totally revolutionary to someone who does know the ins and outs of the problem.

The range of ideas that come about by bringing together so much ambition, intelligence and creativity from such varied backgrounds is truly astounding.

Previous projects have included a wearable device to monitor construction worker health, which ultimately influenced continued research into such a device by Farah Shamout, NYU Abu Dhabi alumna and Rhodes Scholar, in her senior year capstone thesis.

In hackathons around the world, there is a fascination with the latest trends in technology: artificial intelligence, virtual reality, chatbots, natural language processing. Similarly, we look up to the revolutionary figures in the industry: Zuckerberg, Jobs, Gates and Musk.

While these trends and leaders have brought us the technology industry as we know it, there is something inherently flawed about only following these trends and leaders.

The NYU Abu Dhabi hackathon puts hackers to work on problems that might not be considered trendy or glamorous – but the problems are real and the outcomes valuable for people all around the world.

You can see the investment in the projects far beyond the 72 hours of the hackathon. Many teams start thinking about their ideas well in advance, and continue working on them even after the hackathon is over.

Lama Ahmed is a student at NYU Abu Dhabi and a participant at the hackathon