IN BANGLADESH, HACKING SOLUTIONS FOR WATER SUPPLY, SANITATION, AND DISASTER RESILIENCE

Code for Resilience will partner with the Water Hackathon App Fest Bangladesh to bring a focus on disaster resilience to this water and sanitation focused hackahthon in Dhaka on February 14-15.

It is often cited in the water and sanitation sector that out of the world’s 7 billon people, 6 billion have access to a mobile phone while only 4.5 billion have access to a working latrine. On one hand this statistic reminds the sector of its slow progress in achieving adequate sanitation for the global population, and on the other hand it raises interesting questions on the widespread use of information communication technology (ICT). Among these are how can we harness ICT to develop innovative and low-cost approaches to development challenges?

One way the water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) sector is implementing this idea is through the use of hackathons. So what exactly is a WASH hackathon? It’s a marathon of ICT brainstorming and programming aimed at finding new ideas and solutions for common issues in the sector. Before the event, WASH specialists formulate a list of problem statements for the hackers to address. The success of a hackathon depends on the creation of a strong network of passionate entrepreneurs, tech gurus, investors, and WASH experts.

In 2011, the World Bank started the global Water Hackathon event, initiating a series of hackathons in Bangalore, Cairo, Kampala, Lima, London, Nairobi, Tel Aviv, and Washington, D.C. WASH hackathons have since expanded to new sites, such as Dhaka, Bangladesh. The inaugural global Sanitation Hackathon in Dhaka proved to be the largest hacking event of its kind, attracting over 300 hackers. Currently, the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program (WSP) and partners are busy planning Bangladesh’s second hackathon, the Water Hackathon App Fest to be held on February 14-15, 2014.

Unlike previous WASH hackathons, this year’s hackathon in Bangladesh will solely focus on developing mobile applications. The 2014 iteration will also include more private sector and tech partners that will work with hackers to start their own businesses, foster their ICT skills, and encourage interest in solving development issues. This year’s extensive list of partners includes Google Developers Group, Microsoft, Access to Information, and many more.

While Bangladesh has made great strides in the WASH sector, the country still has considerable challenges to overcome. According to the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme, (JMP), 83% of the total population has access to an “improved” drinking water source, and only 4% of the total population defecates in the open. However, the JMP also notes that only 55% of the total population has access to “improved” latrines, which prevents households from maintaining clean environments and puts water sources at high risk for fecal contamination. Drinking water is also often subject to toxic contamination from industrial dumping and high groundwater arsenic concentrations. Additionally, problems associated with climate change, such as natural disasters, increased flooding, salinity changes, and water scarcity also pose a threat to WASH.

Poor monitoring and maintenance, inadequate data collection, and modest user compliance are common themes in many of Bangladesh’s WASH issues and are areas that ICT can provide some solutions. Mobile apps allow for the capture and sharing of data, helping NGO workers and researchers quickly implement household-level surveys. Social media can also give community members a voice by identifying and publicizing current WASH issues.

Take for example Poribesh Shocheton Community, a noteworthy invention from last year’s Bangladesh Sanitation Hackathon that uses crowdsourcing, asking users to SMS texts, upload pictures/videos, or email information on illegal dumping by the textiles industry. Team Pixelizard’s Knitec Toilet tackled hygiene behavior by developing an unconventional motion-detecting game that taught kids (and adults) the proper ways to handwash and use the latrine.

This year’s problem statements will focus even more on WASH issues in Bangladesh, and for the first time, WSP is partnering with the Code for Resilience (C4R), an initiative by the World Bank’s GFDRR that aims to improve communities’ ability to prepare for and reduce the catastrophic effects of major natural disasters. Problem statements in disaster risk management have been added to address Bangladesh’s vulnerability to severe flooding, cyclones, storm surges, and unpredictable weather patterns. The Hackathon problem statements incorporate issues like securing water supplies during the dry season, mapping disaster relief shelters, and communicating severe weather alerts.

Want to learn more about hackathons or interested in becoming a hacker, tech mentor, financier, or problem-owner for the 2014 Water Hackathon ‘App Fest’ in Dhaka? Visit http://www.hackathonbd.com/ or https://www.facebook.com/AppFestBd

Sabrina Haq works for WSP as a short-term consultant based in Dhaka, Bangladesh.