NYUAD's Hackathon for Social Good in the Arab World

It sits there, a blinking cursor on top of the white screen, waiting to be pushed forward by a string of words, a float of integers; a code. Her ...

Apr 11, 2015

It sits there, a blinking cursor on top of the white screen, waiting to be pushed forward by a string of words, a float of integers; a code.
Her fingers, settled on the keyboard, start to press the keys. Their fast-paced movement almost seems musical, as if she were playing the piano. She is not composing a new melody, but rather creating a new program; inventing, as time runs out, a solution. Her name is Sama Kanbour, and along with 101 other hackers — representing more than thirty nationalities — she is a participant of the 2015 Annual NYU Abu Dhabi International Hackathon for Social Good in the Arab world.
NYUAD’s Hackathon aims to bring together bright-minded individuals to apply cutting edge technologies to address social issues in the Arab world. In the span of three days, participating teams conceive and develop new tech products that can serve as answers to social problems in the region.
Beyond its core purpose, what participants come to value the most about the Hackathon is the exchange of ideas. The programming marathon becomes a hub for diverse intellectual, social and cultural experiences, all of which contribute to the final product.
“We want to develop something and there is a thousand ways of solving the problem,” said Kanbour, a student from Carnegie Mellon University of Qatar. “So when you come here and see all those ways of thinking, that’s when everything becomes very exciting.”
The myriad ideas around the table become the greatest challenge.
“If I don’t know what you know and you don’t know what I know … none of us knows what is best,” said Kanbour.
In this exchange of ideas, participants not only learn new programming languages and technical skills, but are also constantly reminded of the importance of teamwork.
Sana Odeh, a professor of computer science at NYUAD and organizer of the event, emphasized the importance of inclusiveness.
“We encourage people from all fields to come and participate,” said Odeh. “Everyone can help because everyone has something to bring to the table even if it’s not in the field of technology.”
Odeh aims to demystify the conception that hackathons are exclusive to computer scientists, engineers and math majors.
“Even though its really intense, participants walk away knowing, having the confidence that they can do something on their own, that they can invent, create, generate,” said Odeh.
This is the case for Nyokabi Njuguna from Kenya, who came to the NYUAD Hackathon as a mentor despite not having any background in IT. She is the founder and executive director of Impacting Youth Trust, a non-profit organization back home that improves the quality of life of youth in the slums. As a mentor, her role during the Hackathon was to create an impression on participants about social problems and how they can be solved.
As the NYUAD Hackathon becomes more popular in the region, it presents an opportunity for participants to reconsider the concept of social good beyond a three-day gathering in which students find solutions to problems that they might not know from first-hand experience.
“Probably [in Kenya], there is only one university [which] hosts a Hackathon, and ... only once or twice,” Njuguna noted. “I would like to see universities like this come to my country and actually hold Hackathons for social good in sub-Saharan Africa because nobody ever goes and give them chances to do things like this.”
The future challenge, then, is not only to invent new apps. NYUAD Hackathon has posed the challenge of offering hackathons, and the educational opportunities they carry, to a wider range of students around the world.
Angela Orozco is a contributing writer. Email her at
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