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Phone Apps for Toilets: Hackathon Mobilizes Techies for Hygiene Solutions

BY Lisa Goldman | Thursday, December 6 2012

Last weekend the International Sanitation Hackathon took place simultaneously in 40 cities across the globe, from Vancouver to Jakarta and Helsinki to Porto Alegre. The World Bank-organized event brought together development workers and techies to brainstorm solutions to a problem that confounds the developing world — poor sanitation and waste disposal, which causes disease and raises mortality rates.

One of the defining ideas of the hackathon was to take advantage of the fact that worldwide, far more people have mobile phones than toilets. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, mobile phone penetration in urban areas tops 95 percent. As the World Bank points out, 1.1 billion people around the world have no access to sanitation facilities and defecate in the open, while 6 billion possess mobile phones. The world population is currently just over 7 billion. So perhaps phone apps could show people where to find sanitary facilities, how to dispose safely of waste and how to create their own safe waste disposal systems.

From the World Bank's blog post on the global event:

“Across the word in places where people do not have access to sanitation, we see those people with cell phones," said Rachel Kyte, World Bank Vice President for Sustainable Development. "The barriers to accessing sanitation are many and varied. Technology is not a silver bullet, but we wanted to find out whether for example mobile or location based technologies could remove any of those barriers. It turns out they can."

The global Sanitation Hackathon, as the 2011 Water Hackathon before it, follows the model set by Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK), in which subject matter experts and local stakeholders submit problem statements which are then tackled by volunteer software developers who use the latest technology tools to create innovative solutions. The first RHoK event in November 2009 gave rise to applications such as I’m Ok! and Tweak the Tweet, which were used in emergency response operations following the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

One of the new apps developed over the weekend, called “Mapsh,” could enable the government of India to more easily verify communities that have achieved open-defecation free (ODF) status, for which villages are rewarded as part of the country’s Total Sanitation Campaign. Mapsh is designed to use a mobile crowd-sourcing tool to assist in the verification process of ODF communities. Other apps tackled behavior-change challenges to sanitation and hygiene problems, such as using mobile educational games to begin changing the attitudes and practices among children related to handwashing.

The sanitation hackathon was quite widely covered by the media, particularly in India.

The Indian media's interest in the hackathon could be partly a product of reverence for Mahatma Gandhi, who promoted hygiene and sanitation as a fundamental part of his philosophy. He famously called his toilet his "temple"; and when he led activists around rural India to promote his non violent resistance philosophy, he always carried a toilet with him.

In the Philippines, meanwhile, a user curated local tweets that were hashtagged #sanhack, including one that linked to an amateur video showing the indignities imposed on people — particularly urban slum dwellers — who had no access to sanitary facilities.

Last weekend's hackathon was just the jumping-off point for a sanitation apps challenge that will end in March, when the organizers will announce the winning apps at an awards ceremony.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.