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A Burgeoning Hacker Culture in Haiti

BY Jessica McKenzie | Thursday, January 23 2014

A scene from the 2013 Haiti hackathon (EricGoldhagen/Flickr)

Haiti's first hackathon ever took place only one year ago, in February 2013, but since then students at the Ecole Supérieure d'Infotronique d'Haiti (ESIH) have held two more hacking events and are even now forming a coding club called Enjoy.code. More than 100 students have applied to be a part of the new club. In an interview with techPresident, the Directeur Général of ESIH Patrick Attie talked about the burgeoning hacker culture in his school.

Haiti's first hackathon, which was covered by techPresident last year, came out of a partnership with Digital Democracy, a nonprofit that helps marginalized communities gain empowerment through the use of technology. During the hackathon, participants—roughly 40 ESIH students and 15 international visitors—developed a geo-referenced map of Haiti to help victims of sexual violence find resources and services available to them throughout the country.

It was a new kind of pressure for Attie's students, who had never before been asked to create something that would actually be used by somebody (in this case, the Haitian organization Commission of Women Victims for Victims, or KOFAVIV). Not only did it lay the groundwork for a new culture of problem solving, but it also gave the students new confidence in their own abilities.

Haitian students, Attie explained, have a tendency to think that foreigners are going to do things better (he interrupted himself to say he is stereotyping a little bit), but that being compelled to work alongside the visiting developers and programmers gave the students confidence in themselves.

“Students came out of the hackathon and said they wanted to do more,” said Attie.

In April they organized a hackathon so they could participate in the NASA space app challenge. Unfortunately, the page for their app Picstoria appears to be down at the moment.

In August they held a hackathon to build an app that could translate SMS messages into voice messages. Five teams of seven worked on the same problem, and at the end, a jury that consisted of Attie and additional outside experts, selected the best product. By including a feature that detects languages automatically, the winning app actually exceeded the specifications the teams were given. They are currently trying to launch the service on the mobile network Digicel.

The August hackathon came about after Attie made contact with Gerald Oriol at the Bureau du secrétaire d'Etat à l'Intégration des Handicappés (BSEIH). Attie describes Oriol as “dynamic” and says that, although he is not part of the hacker culture, he understands the advantages of this kind of problem solving.

In a country with so few resources, Attie points out, a hackathon is a “low cost, interesting solution to problems.”

Ultimately, the growth of a hacker culture in Haiti is limited to the government organizations or NGOs open to partnering with ESIH. You need a partner, and you need a problem that has a technology solution, says Attie. “A two to three day problem.”

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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