Armed with laptops, pillows and coffee, University of California Berkeley students gathered on a mid-November weekend for one reason: to hack for the Peace Corps. Working through the night, seven teams battled for $2000 in prize money and, after twenty long hours of work, presented their innovations to a panel of judges. But that weekend, winning wasn’t everything.
This year, Peace Corps sponsored UC Berkeley’s School of Information’s annual hackathon. “Normally at hackathons, people are mostly excited about their own ideas and own pet projects. The enthusiasm people showed for the Peace Corps was very special,” said Seema Puthyapurayil, a veteran hackathon attendee and one of the organizers.
Knowing their work could make a real-world difference helped to foster a collaborative, cooperative and fun environment among the participants. Peace Corps Volunteers and staff provided the inspiration, using problems statements gathered through the Peace Corps Innovation Challenge, where Peace Corps Volunteers submit ideas for innovative projects and tools that could have a big impact for their community. “Hearing their stories really made the experience more real. It’s not just an idea, these people have really run into these problems,” said Christina Pham, a Berkeley Student.
Working overnight, teams used real world use cases, data sets, document collections, code repositories, and contexts to design and create a solution for their chosen topic. Some teams were even able to collaborate with currently serving Volunteers. (Team Peace Knowledge pictured above.) Team Discover Morocco connected with Thomas Counsell, a PCV and tech lead for The Anou, a website that connects artisan groups in Morocco with potential buyers abroad. This team was addressing Tom’s problem statement: “How would you use the potential of geolocation data to strengthen the connection between artisans and their customers?”
“After talking with him, we adjusted our design to avoid adding additional overhead for the artisans,” Sayantan Mukhopadhyay from the team reflected after speaking with Tom. This direct line of communication with the end user gives a unique flare to a Peace Corps Hackathon, and at the end of the weekend Team Discover Morocco took the top spot.
Second place went to the PCOI team. This team focused on creating an interface for prospective Peace Corps Volunteers to match themselves up with open Volunteer opportunities. PCOI also developed an algorithm for connecting these prospective volunteers with the most suitable spot in the communities with the greatest need. The third-place team, Peace Knowledge, worked on developing a framework for a knowledge-sharing platform for Peace Corps Volunteers and staff to share their experiences.
With each hackathon, the Peace Corps gains new ideas, mobile and web applications, and, most importantly, new relationships. These relationships and applications will continue to grow and evolve into real-world solutions. Mukhopadhyay agreed: “That’s the reason we chose to work on this project – because it could really be implemented on the ground, and could make a real impact.”
Anna Shaw is a member of the Peace Corps Office of Innovation. She has a MA in post-war recovery studies and background in Information Communication Technologies for Development. The Office of Innovation works to both highlight the innovation our Volunteers as well as research, advise and implement new ways the Peace Corps can be more effective and efficient.