People 'n' Issues

Hackathon to help kids

July 6th, 2015
Technology and early childhood development might not always be considered comfortable bedfellows, but recently people working across the ECD spectrum teamed up with techies to brainstorm technology solutions for the sector.

The event was co-hosted by the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship, a specialised unit at the UCT Graduate School of Business (GSB) and ECD social innovation fund Innovation Edge.

Hackathons – also known as hack days or hack fests – are events where computer programmers collaborate intensively with a diverse group of people on specific software projects for a limited amount of time. They are fast emerging around the world as a powerful mechanism to surface co-created, technology-enabled innovation to tackle specific business and social challenges.

The concept has been gaining ground in South Africa too, with champions like the Bertha Centre, GovHack and Silicon Cape leading the way. On the weekend, these three players teamed up with Innovation Edge, which funded the day, and other partners including the Department of Psychology at Stellenbosch University, Ogilvy, RLabs, Codex and MTN, to focus the power of the hack on the critical area of ECD.

According to the Bertha Centre’s Camilla Swart, who conceptualised the event with Mark Tomlinson from the University of Stellenbosch, research shows that the first few years of a child’s life is crucial to laying a solid foundation for lifelong health and intellectual development. “Poor access to good nutrition, a lack of responsive care and a dearth of early stimulation through play are some of the key challenges ECD centres in the country continue to face, and it was to these issues that the hackathon turned its attention,” she said.

On the day, small teams of coders, ECD specialists and creative thinkers worked together for eight hours straight to find practical and low-cost technology solutions to these challenges.

The most innovative idea and R10 000 cash prize went to the team working on an app called Crèche Connect, which seeks to enable parents to rate a day-care centre’s effectiveness. The team, made up of individuals from: NGO, South Africa Education and Environment Project (SAEP), RegenAfrica, Western Cape ICT, NextGen pioneers, Business Connexion, UCT ICT4Dev and CodeX – none of whom knew each other prior to the hackathon, agreed that they would use the money to incubate the idea further.

Swart said there was a brilliant energy from participants on the day and a real buzz, which translated onto social media as well, where the hackathon was trending at #1 on Twitter.

“So often people are tempted to rush into solutions without really understanding the problem. A lot of time was spent explaining the importance of ECD to the teams, ensuring they understood the context,” she said.

“There were so many good ideas. But the judges really liked the Crèche Connect idea, which was based on the concept of Trip Advisor for crèches,” Swart said. “In low income communities informal crèches can have variable quality assurance. Being able to rank the facilities will help parents find the best crèche for their child and increase quality in the sector.  This idea was designed to empower parents.”

Other ideas included mobile referral systems for clinics, apps to identify developmental delays and ways to share knowledge and communicate across crèches to improve quality. Swart says, “There were funders, government officials and businesses who showed great interest in picking up the other concepts, so some ideas will be taken further.”

The event took place in the MTN Solution Space, an innovation hub located on the UCT Graduate School of Business campus. “We were very excited to host this event,” says Sarah-Anne Arnold, manager of the MTN Solution Space. “Our mission is to connect people for innovation and development on the continent.”

Dr Francois Bonnici, director of the Bertha Centre said that once again the mechanism of the hackathon has shown its potential in drawing out innovative solutions that have social impact.

“The combination of people, action, and ideas in a motivated environment is powerful. These collaborative learning events have the potential to produce novel approaches to addressing key challenges. More than that, they provide all of us with inspiration and lay the foundation for new networks for support and bring new resources to oft-neglected issues, bringing purposeful mentorship to innovators in our society.”

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