Print Edition - 2015-06-06  |  On Saturday

Hacking the quake

  • The founders of the HackTheQuake competition are seeking innovative, out-of-the-box thinkers who can come up with solutions for rebuilding the nation
- Dipti Sherchan
Hacking the quake

Jun 5, 2015-

When the Great Quake hit Nepal on April 25, no one could have imagined the number of citizen-driven initiatives that would spring into action. Hundreds of youth started taking part in self-initiated and self-organised relief efforts in response to the disaster. The social media platforms were inundated with posts and updates on groups going to different affected districts with relief materials and the sites were awash with stories of volunteers helping out in hospitals and building temporary shelters and toilets. Nepali youth wanted to do anything they could to help, and their desire to help their countrymen was further fuelled by a growing frustration with the absence of the state in this hour of ordeal.

HackTheQuake, an idea-competition encouraging people to think of innovative ways of rebuilding Nepal, was initiated just around the time when many such citizen-driven initiatives started winding down because they were done with providing immediate relief to the quake-affected people. People with ideas for post disaster nation building are to submit their ideas to the website and the winners of the competition will win cash prizes of Rs 150,000; the winning ideas and designs will then be forwarded to the National Planning Commission, who will decide whether to implement the ideas on a national scale.

There are several areas that designers can work in: providing safe drinking water, temporary and permanent houses, improving information and energy access and providing nutritious food and medical solutions. However, the larger call is for out-of-the-box ideas that take into account local realities and make use of local resources to solve problems.

“Ideas can come from everywhere, whether from engineers, experienced businessmen, or school children,” says Anuj Guruvacharya, one of the co-initiators of this idea-thon. “So we wanted to create a database of ideas focused on rebuilding Nepal and open source it so that anyone can implement them.”

The HackTheQuake online platform is a hub for communities of like-minded Nepalis based in Nepal, India, America, and the UK. It has been inspired by similar kinds of competitions held after disasters in Indonesia and Haiti that encouraged people to come up with innovative solutions for rebuilding their nations. Manish Modi, from Janaki Tech and Arvind Sah, from SparrowSMS, are coordinating this project from Nepal.

When I asked Modi whether it was too soon to be holding a competition given that everyone was still living through stressful times, Modi said the timing should not be a problem. “We realise that competitions are usually held in more normal environments, but we think that even in times of distress, competitions can always help bring out innovative ideas that can be implemented nation-wide,” he said. “But we did wait for a while before launching our platform so as not to distract the people from doing actual relief work and introduced it much later on.”

The problem-solving, task-oriented nature of competitions, according to Modi, will not only bring creators out of the woodwork but will also provide an added incentive for the people already working on solutions to keep at it.

What HackTheQuake is attempting to do is somehow disrupt the usual methods of finding solutions. It wants to move brainstorming and creating away from roundtable meetings, seminars and conferences at big hotels. And it wants to help people find ways around waiting for a proposal to be passed to authorities by authorities. The project revolves around putting up an online site that everyone has access to and encouraging creators to continue having ownership over their ideas, but with a little help from experts.

Because everyone in Nepal doesn’t have access to the Internet, the HackTheQuake team is currently communicating with colleges to spread the word, and while the project is still Kathmandu-focused, given the scale of the undertaking, the team wants to encourage entries from all over the nation.

During my conversation with the team, I learned that both Modi and Sah felt a deep sense of frustration, which a lot of relief volunteers share, with the way the state has handled the post quake response. Sah talked about how, for example, the government could not even keep vehicle fares from rising during the early days of the crisis, despite the state’s promises to do so.

“The government could not make timely decisions or act decisively,” said Modi. “While post-disaster management should have been a government-citizen partnership, the government kept changing its decisions. Its one-door-policy has failed because ideas could not be implemented properly and there was no transparency.”

Platforms like HackTheQuake, on the other hand, seek to bridge the gap between the government and the citizens.

Besides helping contestants come up with solutions that could be implemented in the near future, HackTheQuake, say its team members, can also be a resource that pools together different kinds of ideas on dealing with disaster management that can be referred to if another earthquake were to hit Nepal. If disaster were to strike again, there will already be a thriving space where ideas that have been worked on can be referred to.

“We are collaborating with the Nepal Engineer’s Association [NEA], Kathmandu University and their Business Incubator Centres [BIC], who will be providing us with technical expertise support,” says Sah. “Sashi Bhattarai, chairperson of NEA BIC, and Supriya Koirala, chairperson of KU BIC are already in conversation with government officials at the Nepal Planning Commission. We hope the ideas that get submitted to our platform get applied nationwide on a mass scale.”

“We have already received 20 applications but we are looking for more,” says Modi. “There is a lot of potential in Nepali people, especially the youth.”

The ideas submitted to the online platform will be selected by a panel of judges who have expertise in particular sectors. The selected individual (or group) will go through rounds of mentorship, brainstorming, and will get help with improving their ideas. After that, HackTheQuake will connect the teams with technical experts and donor agencies that can financially support the implementing of the winning ideas.

The deadline to submit ideas for rebuilding Nepal is June 15, 2015. For more information: www.hackthequake.com

Published: 06-06-2015 10:40

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