Give Techies a Shot at Your Development Challenge

The global revolution in low-cost information and communication technologies can help address some of the developing world’s oldest challenges in water and sanitation.  This is one of the conclusions stemming from the first Water Hackathon in October 2011.  The lessons from this event were released in a new report  this week. 

Related Resources:
Water Hackathon Blog
The Water Blog
Water Hackathon
Full Report: Water Hackathon Lessons Learned


With the number of mobile subscriptions exceeding 5 billion, more people today have access to a mobile phone than to a toilet. Convergence of widespread mobile phone ownership with new mobile services offers new platforms for reach, transparency, and participation in achieving water security.

The Water Hackathon was a first-of-its-kind gathering of software developers in 10 cities around the world who competed to build software solutions to water sector challenges defined by governments, utilities, civil society groups, World Bank experts, and directly by citizens.  

The Hackathon, which took place simultaneously in Bangalore, Lagos, Lima, London, Nairobi, and Washington, DC among others, drew over 500 technology specialists.  Since October, over 60 prototype solutions have been built in response to the 113 water sector challenges defined.  

What is a Hackathon?  A hack-a-thon event (also known as an apps challenge, hack day, hackfest, or codefest) is an intensive marathon competition of brainstorming and computer programming that draws together the talent and creativity of software developers and designers.

For example, an innovative new mobile-to-web user feedback system for the Kenyan water and sanitation sector will help citizens to hold utilities accountable for the quality of their water and sanitation services.  It will build a system for consumers to submit complaints to a central database via basic text-messages and other technology. Consumers will receive a unique, traceable reference number to check the status of their complaints, which will be automatically routed to the respective water utility companies.  Issues that remain unresolved beyond a specified time-period will be automatically escalated for the attention of the national regulator.

“Citizens in Kenya and other parts of Africa have often lacked the experience and robust tools necessary to engage and exact accountability in the water and sanitation sector,” said Rosemary Rop, Water and Sanitation Specialist with the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program.  “This application will mean considerable gains in efficiency, consumers will be empowered to submit and track complaints on their phones, water service providers will have one central, standardized portal to review and resolve all complaints, and the improved and automatically sorted consumer information will help the regulator to work efficiently.”  

According to the Water Hackathon report, hackathons produce more meaningful results if they are designed as a process, rather than as a one-off event.

“Seeing the Hackathon as a process places equal emphasis on the collection of water challenges from those best equipped to define them, the execution of a fun and open Hackathon hosted by tech community partners best equipped to organize them, and follow-up activities that offer opportunities for further collaboration,” said Julia Bucknall, Sector Manager at the World Bank Water Anchor.

Other sectors considering Hackathons stand to benefit from the lessons from the Water Hackathon in the new report.  For example, the iterative process of defining pressing problems was critical to a successful event, and also drew innovation from within the water community.  This strengthened that community’s engagement and its ties to one another and to the Hackathon community.  This was also a point made by Mike Mathieu, founder and investor in many civic and political technology startups, on techpresident.com*, “It’s time to end the hollow calls to “create innovative apps” using our “high value data sets” and to usher in a new era of curated problem statements.”

A follow up to the Water Hackathon is taking shape in the form of a Sanitation Hackathon, which may take place as early as World Toilet Day in November.

*Techpresident.com is a nonpartisan political website that tracks how the internet impacts policy and advocacy.