Walking into a dimly lit room within A6, I was struck by the sound of people typing away on laptops and keyboards all at once. For a weekend, people from all around the world gathered in A6 for the NYU Abu Dhabi Hackathon for Social Good in the Arab World. Among them was NYU Abu Dhabi student Daniel Watson, class of 2020, an enthusiastic participant who, for the first time, experienced a different type of a coding competition. He was sitting next to his mentor, who advised him on the latest feature of their project.
“If it were not for my mentors I would have probably started programming as soon as possible,” he said. Instead, Watson didn’t write any code until the second half of the day. “[I would’ve] wasted time,” he said, reflecting on how taking time allowed his team to gather their thoughts. When I approached him, Watson and his team were coding an automated triage nurse that can manage emergency situations. They were focused deeply on their code.
On Saturday evening, with just about 12 hours left before the final presentations, all the ten teams were working in — they had to submit their projects by 12 p.m.. The scene resembled that of the library before finals, when people chat and laugh as they type rapidly into their laptops to reduce the stress of the deadlines. Pressure was in the air, but no one panicked. All the risks seem calculated; all of the steps carefully counted.
“This hackathon has a special focus on ideation, which is what I think makes it so great,” said Harini Kannan, one of the mentors whose day job is to research software engineering at Google. “For other hackathons that I have been involved with in the past, such as HackMIT, YCHacks, Greylock Hackfest, students show up with a team and a rough idea already decided.”
Instead of coming in with a predefined plan, teams spent the entirety of Friday coming up with ideas. However, the purpose of a hackathon — a combination between marathon and hacking
— is not only ideation. Strong ideas serve as a backbone for teams that attempt to build a deliverable prototype; a mobile app, a website or any other technological solution. This year, the event’s deliverables were centered around four main themes: healthcare, education and illiteracy, the environment and humanitarian aid.
In line with the latest trends in technology — artificial intelligence, virtual reality, chat bots and natural language processing — it is no wonder that this year’s hackathon ideas range from automated triage nurses, to an Arabic-speaking virtual assistant to a platform to encourage people to donate more confidently for charity. On the third day of the competition, the participants had to publicly present their applications to a panel of experts.
Prior to the meeting with the judges and the public on Sunday, I interviewed Khalid Machchate, CEO at K&W Technologies International in Morocco and mentor to the Teslam team. Teslam developed an intelligent chat bot to help patients with non-communicable diseases, particularly obesity and diabetes. His team divided their work effectively so that they didn’t miss any detail in the inauguration of their intelligent chat bot that tracks a customer’s potential diseases. While two of the teammates were working on the presentation, the remaining four were working together to perfect the last lines of the code.
“The students and the mentors are of extremely high caliber in technical and managerial aspects, making the projects ready to implement by Monday, if we had one more day to code. ... I would love the hackathon to continue doing the amazing work they do”, said Machchate.
On the next day, April 16, at 4 p.m., when the presentations started, the Teslam team was on stage presenting their virtual chat bot. From the back of the A6 auditorium, Farah Shammout, class of 2016 and the other mentor of the Teslam team, was crossing her fingers. Shammout, currently a Ph.D. Student at the University of Oxford, returned this year as a mentor to share her previous experience as winner of the Hackathon for Social Good in the Arab World. Teslam ended up winning the Audience Award.
“This mentorship experience has been very rewarding. I had the chance to engage with brilliant minds who are so motivated about utilizing technology to create social good — and this hackathon specifically nurtures my hope for the Arab world,” said Shammout at the end of the hackathon. She hopes more NYUAD students participate in the future.
First place went to hackers from team Hiat, who developed an easy-to-use gig-economy platform for connecting refugees separated from their families. The platform aims to be sustainable by providing job opportunities and overcoming language barriers. Like last year’s winner app, Arabic Snippets, which addressed unemployment issues, the application is expected to be launched soon. The runner-up was Watson’s team, 3ndi, whose focus was on forwarding emergency calls to a robot that can assist the caller. The third place was shared between Takeeb, an automated grammar checker to teach Arabic and AnNahr, an interactive solution that addresses the issue of water wastage during ablution at mosques.
Daria Zahaleanu is Deputy Opinion Editor. Email her at email@example.com.