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Hacking our way to better sanitation

04.27.2013
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When you usually think of hackathons, you think of a big bunch of geeks gathering to work on some high tech wizardry.  You probably think of things like the worlds largest hackathon conducted by NASA last weekend.

You might not think of sewerage though, yet that’s exactly the idea behind the Sanitation Hackathon.  The idea originated out of Dakar, Senegal, where students had nowhere to go to the toilet.  They used a tool called mSchool however to alert authorities to the problem and in no time at all, it was fixed.

“For us, it’s not just to show that there is a capacity in Africa to develop good applications,” said Daniel Annerose, chief executive of a mobile technology company in Dakar, called Manobi, which developed the reporting system, which lets teachers, students or parents report problems with sanitation facilities at more than 2,000 schools across Senegal. mSchool was one of three original winners of a competition organised by the World Bank called the Sanitation Hackathon.  They along with their fellow winners will be honoured today at an annual meeting of the bank.  The other winners are Sun-Clean, which is a video game developed by Indonesian students to teach children about good hygiene, and Taarifa, an open source platform to help officials keep track of sanitation problems.

The Hackathon helped to overcome the prickly issue of poo.  It’s not a topic many of us feel comfortable about, yet its problems cause undoubted problems in a number of ways, be that the clear health issues or prompting many young girls to drop out of school due to the lack of toilet facilities.

“We were saying, ‘Isn’t this awful,”’ Jaehyang So, manager of the Water and Sanitation Program said. “Then we decided to say, ‘What can we learn from the tech industry?’ Why is it that pretty much everyone who wants an iPhone can get one? How do they get this kind of rapid scale-up?”

After consultation with experts in the field, the Hackathon ran over two days in December of last year.  It saw more than 1,000 developers from 40 cities around the world gathering to work on sanitation projects.

The project has been supported by the Gates Foundation as well as companies such as Nokia.

“It’s something that can have a little more impact than helping someone find the nearest bar or restaurant,” said Gary Gale, director of global community programs in the location and commerce division of Nokia, which works with the company’s mapping technology.

Whilst the World Bank have no plans to back the winning projects financially, they very much hope that other groups will take up the baton.  With that in mind they are taking the winners to Silicon Valley to meet with venture capitalists in the hope that they can secure investment.

“We would love it if Silicon Valley could take some of these applications and build them into sustainable businesses,” said Chris Vein, chief innovation officer for information and communications technology development at the bank. That way, he added, the projects could create jobs and economic growth, perhaps helping to ease the poverty that underlies poor sanitation.