LOS ANGELES - With billions locked down at home by COVID-19, the internet is a lifeline, allowing people to work, study and share ideas online.
It also presents opportunities, say the organizers of the Global Hack, a virtual gathering of hundreds of thousands of people in 50 nations taking place Thursday through Saturday, April 9-11. Prizes for the best ideas for new platforms, applications and innovations will be awarded April 12.
Hackathons are usually mass gatherings of software developers and graphic designers who tackle problems in a competitive setting. With the Global Hack now under way, creative teams are working remotely to come up with solutions to problems raised by the COVID-19 pandemic and future crises.
“We gather people together, with very different skills, different competencies,” said Kai Isand, a leader of the technology collective Accelerate Estonia and head organizer for this weekend’s Global Hack.
“We brainstorm ideas, and we actually build them into working prototypes,” she said.
A hackathon March 13-15 created a map of COVID-19 cases in Estonia, the country in northern Europe where the online movement Hack the Crisis started. Other teams developed a health questionnaire and a site to link volunteers with medical backgrounds.
Dozens of nations are now involved.
“People said we were in lockdown, and we knocked down the lockdown and we felt so connected with everyone,” said Payal Manan Rajpal, who heads Hack the Crisis, India.
She said her country has a huge pool of technology talent, and among the innovations that emerged from a recent Indian hackathon was “an AI (artificial intelligence) enabled robot, which will be very helpful to disinfect via UV (ultraviolet) rays in quarantine wards.”
The movement has drawn support from the business community and IT sector.
Estonia, where the Hack the Crisis movement started, is a nation of 1.3 million people that embraced the digital revolution early, said Viljar Lubi, Estonian vice minister for economic development for the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications.
“We thought we could use IT in order to make our government leaner and smoother and bring it closer to its citizens,” he said.
Estonia has pursued the concept of digital government, and in last year’s parliamentary election, 44% of Estonian voters cast their votes online.
The Hack the Crisis movement began with a call for creative ideas from an Estonian government official. In response, international startup consultant Calum Cameron made a few phone calls and the concept was hammered out, with organizers quickly securing government backing.
Within days, the March 13 online hack was under way.
The online movement quickly spread to Latvia, Germany, Belarus and dozens of other countries. “Everybody in the region was thinking about it. Everybody had the same idea, but Estonia was the only country that was ready to actually go,” Cameron said.
The online hacks are not just for IT experts, said Isand, of the Global Hack, and they welcome educators, designers, marketers and anyone with ideas. Online mentors include Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov and former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves.
Cameron said that for the first time in history, humanity has been able to come together virtually to address a common problem, “and do something about it … using digital, using internet,” to mitigate this and future crises.