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Techies Gather in Port Au Prince for Haiti's First Hackathon

BY Tate Watkins | Monday, February 11 2013

Participants in Haiti's first hackathon (credit: Tate Watkins)

Holding a hackathon in Haiti is a lot like farming in Haiti. That’s how computer science graduate student Richardson Ciguené describes the concept, even dubbing the event with a local name: konbit technologie. “A konbit,” Ciguené explains, “is something that, in the countryside, where people live more off of the earth, they’re farmers, so they make a group. One day they work the field of one person, the next day they work the field of another person. They do that until everyone’s field is worked.”

“Haiti won its independence a little bit before the United States,” he adds, “and maybe even from the early days, Haiti was already doing hackathons way back then,” in the fields.

Ciguené was one of several local techies who participated in Haiti Hackathon 2013 over the first weekend of February. It was the first such event created by and for Haitians held in the country. Over a period of three days, local and international participants learned new techniques and bonded into teams that plan to use their knowledge to continue working together. 

Held at Ecole Supérieure d’Infotronique d’Haïti (ESIH), which focuses on IT education, hackathon participants included students, a women’s group that works with survivors of gender-based violence, and an international team of programmers. All came together to create tech solutions to real-world problems, using a communal approach.

Digital Democracy (Dd), a non-profit working in Haiti and elsewhere to use technology to support marginalized communities, organized the event. Since 2010, Dd has worked with the Commission of Women Victims for Victims  (KOFAVIV, in its Haitian Creole acronym), a Haitian organization founded in 2004 to advocate on behalf of and provide services for women and girls who are survivors of rape or gender-based violence.

“Working with KOFAVIV,” says Dd co-founder Emily Jacobi, “is an example of what it means to work in solidarity, instead of coming in and kind of importing systems, so to speak.” One example of such a demand-driven collaboration is the group’s main project with KOFAVIV: a call center and crisis hotline that victims of violence can call for help, along with a database used by the organization to sort and disseminate its data.

The goal of the participants was to build a web platform to map and aggregate information on services available to victims of sexual violence throughout Haiti. After the earthquake, volunteers from around the world quickly mapped Haiti on Open Street Map (OSM), an open-source map editable by anyone — the Wikipedia of digital cartography. When callers in Port-au-Prince phone the center, operators can provide precise information thanks to OSM, directing callers to a hospital or clinic, for instance, or helping them navigate to a police precinct to report a crime.

Five software programmers from New York City and San Francisco flew into Port-au-Prince for the hackathon, with a representative and developer from UNHCR, the United Nation’s refugee agency, joining them from Hungary. The international team joined 10 ESIH students and a score of KOFAVIV members.

After an emergency SMS reporting system was widely used in response to the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, “a lot of international groups wanted to do texting,” says Dd’s Emily Jacobi. But women working at KOFAVIV cited cultural barriers and other concerns as disadvantages to using an SMS-based system, and they consequently came up with the idea for the call center. “If you actually take time to listen to people,” Jacobi adds, “then you develop better solutions.”

OpenStreetMap is the most used map in Haiti,” says Jean Bully Prophete, an OSM contributor who studied computer science in Haiti. “You have people working on it every day, adding points, adding roads, fixing mistakes.” But while OSM is probably the most detailed existing digital map of Haiti, the provinces outside of the capital remain sparsely documented. The hackathon’s main objective was to create a means of mapping resources available to victims throughout the country, allowing KOFAVIV to provide detailed reference services nationwide. The organization also wanted to improve the functionality of its database so it could identify trends in existing data and develop ways to visualize that data for advocacy and outreach.

Participants gathered at KOFAVIV’s office on Friday to plan their strategy, then spent Saturday and Sunday working on scripts and building apps at ESIH. By the end of the weekend, they had built all necessary components for the mapping app. They needed only to combine the disparate components and implement the system on KOFAVIV’s server. Most programmers and students cited lack of time as the event’s greatest drawback, but a hackathon is only the beginning of the creative process. The team plans to complete the work in a week or two. Once the map is operational, KOFAVIV will continue to populate it with names, locations, and information for service providers.

“They needed an application to be able not only to geo-reference this data,” says Patrick Attié, a Frenchman who’s lived in Haiti for 20 years and helped found ESIH, “but also to visualize and to make sense and intelligence of these data.” Post-quake, KOFAVIV recorded a spike in cases of sexual violence, but they were documented only on loose pieces of paper and weren’t aggregated in a systemic way. The Haitian government refused to credit KOFAVIV’s reports and denied claims that there had been an increase in sexual violence after the disaster. With their database and related technologies, KOFAVIV can now demonstrate the veracity of their statistics and reports. Project coordinator Jocie Philistin says the group’s relationship with the government is much improved. The hackathon was the next step toward improving their mapping and database systems.

“We had never done a hackathon before — this is the first hackathon that has been done in Haiti,” Attié says. “We certainly know there were many hackathons that were done after the earthquake about Haiti, for Haiti, but never in Haiti. For [ESIH], it was as much a learning experience for the results, but even more for the methodology to reach the results.” He says that for most events ESIH has organized with internationals, “participants sit on a chair, they listen to someone speaking, presenting a PowerPoint presentation. In this case, they were the main actors, because they had to produce a nice, working application. So for [the students] it was an excellent experience.”

Jacobi, Dd’s co-founder, described one “really cool teaching moment” from the weekend. Two of the international programmers, Ben Wilkins and Juan Müller, were pressed for time on Sunday afternoon. They decided to pair program — one programmer would write while the other would simultaneously review each line of code. The two switch roles frequently, and the process can help reduce errors and increase the workflow rate. The Haitian students from ESIH gathered around to watch, impressed by the pair programming and by how fast the two were working.

The fruits of the hackathon pleased KOFAVIV’s members as well. “The hackathon was something that was really important to us,” says Astride Jean Claude, a KOFAVIV call center operator, “because we couldn’t give the same service to people in the provinces as Port-au-Prince.”

“Once the map is finished,” she continues, “we’re going to be able to give the same service everywhere. So this is really important work for us.”

Marie Geurdy, another call center operator, echoed that sentiment. “We’ll be able to give more information, more specific information, in particular to callers in the provinces,” she said.

“The hackathon helped us get a better understanding of the fields in our own database,” says Rose André, who works on KOFAVIV’s database team. She also says she benefitted personally from learning more about basic digital literacy. “By way of learning all these new things,” she says, “It makes me much more motivated to move up in the tech field.”

Ciguené, one of the ESIH grad students, expressed enthusiasm about the prospects of Haitians holding future hackathons in Haiti. “Practically every week in other developing countries around the world they’re having hackathons,” he says. “Absolutely, we can start doing them ourselves.”

“There are so many different things that we can do in the realm of technology,” he adds, “if you look at the system we just created for KOFAVIV, [it] obviously isn’t the only organization that needs this type of system.”

“The hackathon brought us together back to this idea, this cultural part of society, the konbit. Maybe we can return to this idea to move forward in different areas.”

Tate Watkins is an American freelance journalist living in Haiti

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