How we tried to solve the COVID-19 crisis in two days

BY: Daniela Lilja, Sabrina Würmli, Shamim Ahamed - 26. May 2020

A matchmaking platform to connect patients with the supplies they need, a cloud-based system delivering vocational education to remote areas, and an “Uber” for agricultural products. Teams competing in #SmartDevelopmentHack came up with these and other innovative ideas in record-short two days.

To address disruptions caused by COVID-19, the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and EU Commission have launched #SmartDevelopmentHack. As part of Germany’s EU Council Presidency 2020, the initiative called for innovative digital ideas to tackle challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, focusing on equal opportunities, work and employment, good governance and human rights, and data for development. Out of more than 1000 teams who applied, 20 were selected to further develop their ideas in a two-day online hackathon – among them Helvetas.

The overlooked victim of COVID-19: young trainees

The worldwide COVID-19 crisis led to the closure of schools hindering education around the globe. Many countries have resorted to distance learning. However, COVID-19 response interventions usually focus on basic education, and little is done to continue vocational education. This hits young people, who are already disproportionally affected by unemployment, especially hard. In addition to vocational training, the pandemic halted in-company training and internships offered by enterprises. In Bangladesh for example, around 3,290 technical and vocational training facilities (both public and private) are currently closed, which leaves 1.2 million students without the skill training they were supposed to receive. Due to their precarious economic situation, many of them might not be able to go back to their courses in post-pandemic times. Education facilities and companies are urgently looking for alternative ways of learning.

Helvetas teamed up with Zabai, a Norwegian e-learning provider, to address the interruption of vocational education in Myanmar and Bangladesh. In our pitch to #SmartDevelopmentHack, we suggested using Zabai’s learning management system, adapting tech and content to the local context. For example, cloud-based, local networks would allow distributing content in remote areas with a poor Internet connection. The outcome of the two days included a pitch deck and a pitch video.

Collaborating online with a team you never met before

Besides having to manage collaboration in the online space, most teams in the hackathon did not know each other before and first had to find a common ground. Our team of six joined from four countries and due to the time difference the colleagues in Myanmar and Bangladesh had to work night shifts. However, team spirit set in soon and the motivating atmosphere among the almost 200 participants was inspiring. Though the whiteboard was virtual, bilateral exchanges, task sharing, and animated discussion took place just as in any face-to-face workshop.

As Shamim Ahamed puts it: “The hackathon is a new way to develop a project idea with colleagues and partners from around the world. I improved my ability to work virtually. I am convinced we will use this kind of collaboration increasingly within Helvetas in training, development of proposals and peer to peer learning.” Luckily, we seemed to have been one of the few teams not having any technical issues, despite having the team spread over two continents.

Innovative digital solutions to fight pandemic-related problems

The competition in the hackathon was tough: participants had to develop innovative ideas in a very limited timeframe. A team from Madagascar presented a hotline, which citizens can call to get information on COVID-19 through pre-recorded messages. Another team developed an uber-like platform to deliver agricultural products directly from farmers to consumers to guarantee as little direct contact as possible while ensuring food security in Kenya and Nigeria. In Peru, a cloud-based matchmaking platform can solve the shortage of material supplies in the health care system. The platform allows health workers to identify materials needed by their patients all over the country. All winner videos can be found here.

“There are no losers - in everything you lose you can gain experience”, Lacina Koné, Director General of Smart Africa and jury member nicely said before announcing the winners. Despite not being among the winning teams, the hackathon showed us that it is possible to develop an idea online from scratch to continue vocational education of marginalized groups during COVID-19 and beyond, by supporting the delivery of cost-effective high-quality education for all (SDG 4). The hackathon may be over, but our idea lives on and sooner or later, we will implement it.