The rapid mobilization of hackathons to develop solutions around the COVID-19 pandemic injects new meaning to the old adage, “necessity is the mother of invention.” Since mid-March, over 53 hackathons are known to have taken place, with more events added daily.
While some high-profile global events such as the #BuildforCOVID19 Global Online Hackathon and The Global Hack attracted over 18,000 and 12,000 participants respectively, most regional and local hackathons have attracted over 1,000 participants, demonstrating the keen enthusiasm of individuals to contribute and collaborate on solutions for the crisis.
In the face of the evolving COVID-19 crisis, the use of hackathons to quickly crowdsource digital ideas and solutions demonstrates the possibilities of open innovation.
Hackathons – a portmanteau word created by combining “hack” and “marathon” have gained popularity over the past couple of years. The events, which often produce a working software prototype in a limited amount of time, have become a common tactic for companies seeking to encourage digital innovation and recruit fresh talent.
They are also increasingly used by cultural organizations and government agencies. Even the Vatican hosted its first-ever hackathon back in 2018 to encourage technological solutions for social inclusion and interfaith dialogue.
One of the first hackathons for COVID-19 was organized in Estonia within six hours in mid-March. The Estonian team inspired a global movement of organizers who have leveraged the learnings from that first coordination to create local and regional hackathons for COVID-19.
To date, several thousands of ideas have been generated, spanning ideas ranging from the coordination of inventory and distribution of medical supplies, public education around COVID-19, the support of data collection for hospitals and individuals, and the provision of social networks and gaming experiences to encourage safe social distancing.
A sample of 10 winning ideas from recent hackathons include:
Social distancing on public transport: An app that provides individualized route recommendations based on train capacity and various distancing measures, while ensuring load balancing for transportation providers. Developed by the Public Spacers team at Hack the Crisis Austria
Community volunteers hub: A web platform to connect volunteers with at-risk populations in their local communities. Developed by a group of volunteers at Hack the Crisis Estonia, the platform connects a call center that receives tasks requests such as grocery shopping and delivery with a web app that matches these tasks with volunteers.
Cough detection: AI is leveraged to detect cough types. Developed by the Detect Now team at CodeVsCovid19 Zurich, the idea is for users to record their coughing sound through a simple web interface and see if it can be diagnosed.
Solve puzzles to accelerate vaccine discovery: This 10-minute puzzle game can be played by anyone to help researchers find a vaccine faster using AI. Developed by the Analysis Mode team at Hack the Virus Netherlands.
Stray animal care: A collaborative platform bringing together volunteers, NGOs, municipals, veterinarians and pet owners to care for stray animals. Developed by the BirCan team at the Coronathon Turkey.
Digitized queues: An app to digitize queuing when shopping, without physically being in line. Freedom to allow people to shop and be notified when it’s time to go to the counter. Developed by the QuickQ team at Hack the Crisis Denmark
Financial assistance navigator: With new stimulus packages announced around the world daily, an app that helps individuals quickly understand what types of financial assistance they could qualify for. Developed by the Crisis Budget team at Hack the Crisis Australia.
Hand disinfection stations: By coupling UV lamps with upcycled solar generators, the SunCrafter team at the Global Hack seeks to create a sustainable, reliable and inclusive hygiene solution for public spaces.
Meal donations to healthcare workers: A platform to collect and distribute meals donated by restaurants to health workers. Developed by the Eat to Donate team at Hack the Crisis Cambodia.
(A full list of all submitted projects can be found on each hackathon’s website)
What happens next?
Some winning projects receive prize money and coaching support to assist them in developing their prototypes. Others receive access to start-up incubators.
Dr Zhan Liu and his team, whose idea for a machine learning tool to help individuals detect fake news hopes that the money they received at the versusvirus swiss hackathon, will allow them to continue with the project. “We would be interested in developing our idea into a real product and obtain more funding to do so,” he explains.
Regardless of the outcome, Liu was happy to participate. “We wanted to make a contribution.” That need to contribute is key to the creativity, focus and drive that characterise these crisis-driven hackathons. As one hackathon organizer acknowledged regarding the voluntary efforts of all participants, “We are all co-creators; and we are all winners.”