As part of the Iraq Technology and Entrepreneurship Alliance, I had the opportunity to lead the country’s (and possibly the Middle East’s) largest hackathon: the Iraq Innovation Hackathon. Five cities. 48 hours. 300+ attendees. Tackling local and nationwide challenges with on-the-ground solutions.
For most participants, it was their first ever hackathon and a huge learning curve figuring out how to plan, iterate, and prototype in less than two days. People came from all over the country to attend in their nearest city, with a choice of Baghdad, Erbil, Sulaimaniya, Basrah or Mosul.
Attendees could choose one challenge to work on. A common theme was applied to all cities: how can we reduce and reuse single-use plastic? Along with themes specific to each city’s context. From reducing traffic, improving access to higher education and encouraging tourism, the participants came up with innovative ideas to the struggles they face on a daily basis. Winning ideas varied from VR solutions to recycling machines.
There are some unique obstacles that come up when you’re organising a hackathon in a country that has a nascent ecosystem and is recovering from decades of conflict. Hackathons are not common events and a lot of the following tips can be applied to other similar ecosystems, too. Don’t forget that a hackathon is an opportunity to teach, learn, and build something new to solve a problem so whatever you do, keep this messaging clear throughout and see everyone’s eyes shine!
Here are my five top tips on how to run a successful hackathon in Iraq (and other post conflict areas!):
1. Who turned off the lights?
Iraq has dealt with power shortages since the 1990s, but after 2003 it became much worse. In some areas, power cuts can last up to 20 hours and it’s quite the party killer when you’re in the middle of a hackathon project. Imagine being on the last page of your university thesis but you didn’t hit ‘save’ and your battery died. Yeah, not a nice feeling at all.
The first option is to find a reliable venue with 24/7 access to electricity, i.e. their generator game needs to be strong. Not all venues keep their generators on the whole night, so see what works for you and your participants. It is very unlikely that everyone, especially women, will stay up all night and you’ll need to be creative in how you keep people engaged.
No matter what the venue, key devices need to stay on during the switch between the national grid and generator, so the venue should have a couple of UPS. Hook them up to the internet router(s) and any projectors/TVs that you may have on throughout the event.
2. What’s up with the internet?
Landline infrastructure such as DSL and cable internet are not properly in place, which means internet service providers in Iraq rely on 3G wireless technology to provide internet to customers. Generally, the speed and bandwidth is not the best, especially when you have over 30 people using it.
Be sure to have some back up options in case your internet gives up on you. Look for portable, wireless internet providers such as the Zain-Fi device from Zain Telecoms which can provide reliable internet to 10 users per device. This will keep the flow of the hackathon going no matter what!
3. Mentorship is everything
Amidst all the planning, it’s easy to rush through the task of finding mentors and just calling the people in your network to join the weekend. But this is one of the areas that make or break a hackathon and it needs a lot of thought and preparation, especially because this will be the first hackathon for 90% of the participants.
Experienced mentors are the key to having quality projects and to ensure that participants fully understand their deliverables. Based on the themes of the hackathon your mentors need relevant experience, whether that is within the themes themselves or more broader experience in business, technology, or sales. No mentor should have the same skill set.
You also want to ensure that you’re bringing mentors that are committed and reliable – and won’t leave after a few hours! The motivations of the mentors should match the goals of the hackathon, so be clear on the commitment you need from them. They will need to actively engage and speak to all the teams, challenge assumptions and ideas, help people think differently, and be honest enough to tell teams if their ideas suck.
A main point to stress here is the importance of mentors that can speak the local dialect. For example, one of our mentors for the Mosul hackathon was Yousif who is from Mosul and can speak the Muslawi dialect of Arabic (yup, it’s different to the dialect spoken in Baghdad).
So don’t bring an only-English speaking mentor if just 30% of the participants can benefit from him/her. Think localisation. And no, I don’t care if they’re from Silicon Valley.
4. How can you judge me?
Preparing the right judges is just as important as finding good mentors. You ideally want judges that understand what a hackathon is and again, have the relevant experience in the themes to fairly judge the winners based on the time constraints of the event.
It is very likely that your chosen judges will be at their first hackathon too, so invite them to observe the teams in action. It will be an eye-opener for judges to see what people can create in a short amount of time and how far they have come. This will help them appreciate each team’s idea even more and acknowledge their work, which will also enhance their own understanding of the tech being used.
Oftentimes, sponsors will want a representative from their company or organisation to be a judge. It’s your responsibility that each judge knows exactly what their judging criteria is based on and that they fully understand the outcomes and expectations for the event.
5. Okay, it’s over. What now?
Once the hackathon ends and prizes are awarded, you have to maintain follow-up with the winners and set very specific milestones in order to release funds/gifts etc. This all depends on how you have set up your hackathon, but you will need to walk through everything with the winners one by one.
As an example, in a more formal arrangement you may ask winners to sign a contract to confirm that funds will only be used for the purposes of their project. For younger participants, it’s probably their first time signing a contract and it can be overwhelming, so put the effort in to sit them through each point and reassure them about the conditions set out.
Overall, you will need to invest a lot of time explaining what the event is, what is expected of participants, sponsors, mentors, and judges and making sure that the deliverables are clear. If you’re an international NGO or expat organising this, then do make every effort to conduct the whole event in the local language.
Hackathons are always stressful events for the organisers, but once it’s over you feel a huge sense of accomplishment and awe at the final projects and the creativity that comes out of 48 hours! Now take these tips and fly!