IEEE Global Humanitarian Technology Conference (GHTC)
Technology for the Benefit of Humanity // Villanova University, USA / October 23-26, 2024

GHTC Hackathon 2015

GTHC 2015 Hackathon – Call for Challenges

Humanitarian response is a long-standing challenge with a diverse ecosystem of organizations and methods for responding. Recent focus on crowd sourcing and crisis mapping has brought an influx of technology volunteers and digital humanitarians into this already complex system. One way of guiding this surge of attention has been through hackathons, where developers come together with domain experts to address such humanitarian problems.

What’s a hackathon?

A hackathon is an event where technical challenges are presented to a group of volunteers from the community who work, usually over the course of a weekend, to create prototype solutions to those challenges. The volunteers may include software engineers, hardware engineers, designers, writers, subject matter experts and end users of a potential tool.

The GHTC hackathon will be focused on creating open source humanitarian projects presented by a range of civic professionals and humanitarian aid workers like you.

What do the challenges look like?

Challenges may be open-ended, presenting a need but not recommending a particular solution, in order to solicit the widest range of possible outcomes; or they may be more focused, presenting a single route to fill a need so that a specific prototype will come out of the event. For example, we could have a challenge that was looking for solutions to the problem of parents forgetting that their infant children are in the backseat of the car, which can lead to accidental deaths.

  • Open-ended challenge statement: How can we alert parents to the fact that their child is still in the car seat when the adult leaves the car?
  • Focused challenge statement: Design and build a device which recognizes the weight of the baby in the car seat and sets off a gentle alarm when the car engine is turned off so that parents remember to retrieve their infant from the car seat.

A wide range of challenges may be presented at humanitarian hackathons. Some challenges require participants to create data visualizations from open civic databases to help government and citizens understand or respond to the needs presented in that data. Some challenges request help finding more sustainable ways to do an already common task, by decreasing the power needs or creating a self-contained device that can work on battery or solar power in emergencies. Some challenges in the past have dealt with social issues, requesting participants to create apps, games, or social media movements to address issues like healthy eating, bullying, or suicide prevention.

Challenges do not have to be standalone challenges which create a whole new prototype. They can also be specific feature requests for an existing humanitarian open source project. The challenge should represent a significant development which could conceivably be designed, planned and completed to alpha level in a single intense weekend code-sprint.

What are examples of past hackathon successes?

  • Start A Garden In 2014, the Partnership for a Healthier America sponsored a hackathon before their annual conference in Washington, D.C. The focus of this hackathon was finding ways to help American children and families eat healthier food, including more fruits and vegetables. Research shows that children that grow their own vegetables eat more vegetables, so a challenge was presented to find a way to help teachers in public schools start classroom gardens. Start A Garden is a web-based application which helps teachers figure out what they can plant and harvest during the school year, with lesson plans to help them integrate gardening into all areas of the curriculum. The project was a winner of the top award at the PHA hackathon and has gone on to receive funding to continue development and outreach to schools.
  • Taarifa At the 2010 Water Hackathon in London, England, Mark Iliffe, a young cartographer who had just returned from a job tracking and mapping wildlife in Uganda presented a challenge in which he asked participants to design a system on top of the Ushahidi platform to allow members of the public to report on broken water mains, pumps and spigots in remote rural areas. The project was built in 2 days and 3 months later it was in full deployment in Uganda. Taarifa was used to manage the water infrastructure of Uganda for two years. In 2013 a re-write of the software was begun which moved the project off of Ushahidi and created a new python-based platform specifically for managing civic infrastructure and services. The new Taarifa version has been developed at a series of hackathons in the US, UK and Tanzania along with ongoing work by a core team receiving support from the World Bank. Taarifa is currently deployed in Tanzania for tracking water services and educational programs at schools around the country.
  • Bachchao At the June 2012 Random Hacks of Kindness in Bangalore, India, in reaction to a series of high profile attacks on women in India, a female software developer by the name of Chinmayi SK presented a challenge to her fellow hackathon participants to create a “panic button app” for Android phones which would allow a person to send a call to police, an SMS message to up to five (5) pre-selected friends with geolocation information and a call for help, and would start recording audio and video and uploading it immediately to a server for use as a digital witness in court. The original prototype was created during that weekend after which Chinmayi applied to the Geeks Without Bounds Accelerator to receive 6 months of mentorship to help turn the project into a sustainable business. The Bachchao project continues today and is branching out into other personal security devices for vulnerable populations.

What is open source?

When we say open source, we mean that the source code, designs, and any written material supporting or documenting the project must either be published under one of the open source licenses at, under a Creative Commons license (, or explicitly licensed in the Public Domain. These licenses mean that the results of our hackathon will be available for use even in the lowest resource situations and that anyone can contribute to this important work without concern for patents or copyright infringement.

Challenge briefs are the key to producing robust solutions with hackathons. They do this by focusing, not expanding, the parameters of solutions to challenges; our goal is to use challenge briefs to break a problem up into parsable, bite-sized chunks so that participants are able to create more viable results. Briefs that define either new challenges or elements of an existing in-process challenge are welcome.

What are the key pieces of effective challenge briefs?

  • Background
  • Challenge Statement
  • Scenarios (optional)
  • Components
  • Resources

Hackathon challenges aren’t necessarily just software development challenges. Hackathons can also allow the opportunity to work on challenges around software, hardware, and/or open data. Be sure to explain in your brief what sorts of resources you would like to see in response to your challenge.

A template to use to fill out your challenge brief can be found here. For guidelines on creating a challenge statement, see the instructions in the template.

If your challenge brief is accepted, you will serve as the domain (problem) expert with a group of participants during the hackathon to address your problem. The hackathon will occur on Thursday before GHTC opens.

Please submit your challenge brief using this template:

    Your Name (required)

    Your organization (required)

    Your Email (required)

    Your Address (required)

    Your Phone (optional)

    Your website (optional)

    I have read and agree to Terms and Conditions of GHTC Hackathon

    Name of Your Challenge

    Please attach your Challenge (.doc | .pdf | .txt)

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