CAIRO: Water and technology experts came together to brainstorm for ideas and create solutions to local water challenges in the first Water Hackathon held at the American University in Cairo by its Desert Development Center in cooperation with the World Bank.
The experts worked in teams to develop a technology to mitigate identified water challenges such as sanitation, flooding, drought, irrigation and watershed management in the event held on Oct. 21–22.
The event took the form of a competition, where 13 teams were asked to find an ICT solution to solve one of the nine different problems proposed by the organizers, some of which directly related to issues faced by the sponsors.
"The water problem is not only a political issue with Sudan and its neighbors; it is also a problem that could be solved with people from the IT sector getting involved. Like for instance, this iPhone application which allows you to measure water purity," said Moustafa Aboul Himal, assistant researcher at the Desert Development Center.
Various studies have shown that by 2017, Egypt’s need in water will exceed its supply since the Egyptian rapid population growth and the reduced Nile flow (caused by increased evaporation and international upstream use) endangers the sustainability of Egypt’s water consumption.
"We are looking for innovative ways to engage local communities in local issues," explained Carlo Rossotto, regional coordinator for the MENA in the GICT Policy Division of the World Bank. "There are some pressing development issues in Egypt in the health sector, the educational sector, but also on the environment level. The aim of this event is to bring young software’s developers from the skilled ITC sector, together with the water industry and with water experts," Rossotto added.
"I want to find ideas to see how technology can help improve our society. For example, concerning the car theft issue, some people thought of a device that could be installed in the car and would allow its owner to check his car’s location on his mobile. Same IT solutions could be found for water problems," argued Ahmed Lotfy, a web developer taking part in the Hackathon.
"I am here to learn and share my expertise about water. This event is great because it allows a multi-disciplinary approach of the water issue in Egypt, with social, economical, political experts," explained Shaimaa Ahmed, an engineering student at AUC student specializing in geographic information system.
"We need to work on social awareness, Egyptians take the Nile water for granted, we have to learn that it is not the case and that water must be preserved," added Ahmed.
The competition offered six different prizes worth $15,000 to reward the best IT solution proposed by the different teams, in addition to eight vouchers for a weekend in Gouna offered to the teams with the best Hackathon spirit, and an LE 500 Diwan gift certificate offered to the audience’s favorite team.
Pepsico, one of the event’s sponsors which decided to reduce 20 percent of its water consumption by 2015, asked for an IT solution that would help the company to partly reach this objective.
Contestants were asked to create a water gauge monitoring system that would allow the firm’s employees to be constantly updated on their production line’s water consumption.
"If an idea matches the core of our system, we will adopt it and develop it," explained Sherine Shahine, Pepsico’s public relations manager.
Another problem proposed by the organizers asked for an IT tool that would contribute to a more equitable water distribution in Egypt, especially in areas where the water goes on and off, while a second problem required a tracking tool for a community sewage disposal system in Egypt, for underprivileged neighborhoods with no sewage system.
"For those two problems, I tried as much as possible to approach the water problem from the user’s point of view. Contestants will face bigger challenges because they will have to find a way to use the communication and phone networks, without forgetting that in rural areas and neighborhoods, not everybody owns a Smartphone, nor has access to the internet," stressed out Karim Challaby, one of the organizers who has been working in the water sector for years.
After two days of brainstorming, the different teams presented on Saturday afternoon their projects in front of a panel of judges.
The winning team’s idea entailed establishing a water distribution project that brings together the Ministry of Agriculture, the farmers, and the telecommunications sector.
"I am neither a software programmer nor a water specialist, I came here by chance and I saw this event," said Nagham Osman, a member of the winning team.
"My being here shows that anybody can participate in finding a partial solution to the global water problem," Osman concluded.
A parallel Water Hackathon event was organized simultaneously in Bangalore, Kampala, London, Nairobi and Washington D.C.