Governments are increasingly calling on the technology community to collaborate and co-develop solutions to pressing challenges via hackathons. From India to Madagascar, Brazil to Morocco, 53 of these online hackathons have popped up across the globe, culminating in the Global Hack which took place last weekend. During the hackathons participants form teams to virtually and collaboratively build new technology solutions to the Covid-19 crisis. The hackathons consist of a development sprint, usually ranging from 24 to 72 hours, often focussing on issues within the local community. Hack The Crisis events are not just for computer geeks: the movement has successfully brought together thousands of innovators, scientists, researchers, educators, students, policy experts, and designers, from both the public and private sector, in a democratised attempt to ideate around the Covid-19 crisis. 

Hack The Crisis started in Estonia, a global forerunner in digital governance, on March 13 2020. It was organised by Accelerate Estonia, a startup innovation programme initiated by the Estonian Ministry of Economic Affairs, and Garage48, a hackathon organiser aiming to boost the startup scene in Eastern Europe. With support from the Minister of Foreign Trade and Information Technology, Kaimar Karu, the organisations launched the first Hack The Crisis event in just six hours, receiving 96 ideas and coordinating 1000+ participants from 14 different time zones and 20 countries across 30 teams. 

Hack The Crisis Estonia focussed on two sets of ideas: those for short term crisis response, and those that would give Estonia a competitive edge in the aftermath of the crisis. The hackathon offered the five winning teams €5000 each to further develop their solution. The five ideas that won funding from this first hackathon were a call-centre connecting volunteers to the isolated and vulnerable, a breathing apparatus to supplement ventilators which are in short supply globally, a medical volunteer management database, a B2B workforce exchange platform, and a Coronavirus symptom tracker for those recovering in isolation at home. Whilst these solutions are invaluable to the immediate battle against Covid-19, some of the solutions, such as the B2B workforce exchange platform, have the potential to drastically reshape the future of work and the economy in a post-covid world. 

Around the world, truly innovative solutions have emerged from the Hack The Crisis movement, some of which are being adopted by governments. Sicher Test is an app that emerged from the German #WirVsVirus hackathon which allows GPs to book coronavirus test appointments for patients to minimise queues and prevent infections at test sites. GPs are also able to share the patient’s medical history with the testing staff, reducing testing time by 80%, and patients are automatically notified of results via the app. The Lithuanian government has launched ViLTė, a chatbot that dispenses accurate and trustworthy information about Covid-19, which was born out of Hack The Crisis Lithuania. The winners of the Polish ‘Hack The Crisis: Tech For Good’ developed a platform that connects overworked parents with professionals that are under/unemployed as a result of the crisis who can provide extracurricular online activities to children under lockdown.

As the movement gains popularity, hackathons have started to take on a narrower focus. The HRvsVirus Hackathon (17-19 April 2020) exclusively addresses current and future work related challenges resulting from lockdown conditions. Benin’s hackathon focused specifically on gamification solutions to help people make better behavioural choices to protect themselves and others against infection. Estonia has launched the first Youth Hackathon for students aged 14-19, providing mentorship for participants to nurture young change makers and future innovators. There have also been iterations on the format of the hackathon. UK-based HackQuarantine has opted for a three week long hackathon to enable hackers to work more closely with medical professionals and industry. There are also ongoing hackathons that issue prizes periodically, such as the Canadian Codevid-19 project, Czech Hack The Crisis, Hack The Crisis Berlin, and the Portuguese #tech4COVID19.

What has been particularly noteworthy about the Hack The Crisis movement is that the majority of these hackathons have been backed by governments, both central and municipal, in some form or other. In part this may be due to the strong example set by Estonia where the first hackathon received strong political buy in, with endorsement coming from President Kersti Kaljulaid herself. 

Another explanation is that governments are realising they need to turn to innovation ecosystems for support in combating the effects of the virus. The capacity for a community to mobilise in response to a crisis is greater when there are pre-existing networks in place, especially when these networks are experienced at self-organisation. The startup and innovation community constitutes exactly such a network, which accounts in large part for the success of the hackathons in delivering and implementing solutions to frontline problems. The startup ecosystem is populated with individuals with agile, problem-solving mindsets, and can-do attitudes. Innovators and entrepreneurs are adept at finding the opportunities within challenging conditions and circumstances. These are the expertise you need when racing to develop solutions faster than a virus can spread.

Furthermore, the hackathons build upon one of the key trends of the Covid-19 pandemic: the mobilisation of grassroots networks and bottom-up solutions in responding to the crisis. Volunteers have played a vital role in helping deliver supplies to vulnerable communities, raising donations for healthcare professionals, creating digital resource banks, and building vibrant online communities for support, education, fitness and entertainment. Hack The Crisis is no different, and constitutes an inspiring exercise in crowdsourcing innovation at a national and international level. It is also a democratised form of crisis response and encourages people to participate in thinking about, and building towards, the future of our societies. Indeed, Accelerate Estonia actively encouraged participants to adopt moonshot thinking and challenge the regulatory environment where necessary. Hack The Crisis has helped governments tap into the global appetite amongst the general public to be part of the solution.

Hack The Crisis is a wonderful testament to the fact that a small, innovative, digitally-minded state can have a global impact. The hackathons have helped focus talented minds on turning a crisis into an opportunity for innovation. As Viljar Lubi, Estonia’s Deputy Secretary General for Economic Development, said: 

“In difficult times it’s easy to just sit and do nothing. We always have two options: remain seated when the ground is burning or start searching for solutions. We chose the last option!”

And the results have been successful!

If you are keen to get involved in Hack The Crisis and try your hand at solving grand social challenges, here are some upcoming hackathons: