German COVID-19 Hackathon delivers more than 800 projects

#WirVsVirus was about digital solutions to challenges of the coronavirus pandemic. [MaD Checkpoint | Shutterstock]

Last weekend, the German government had 42,869 participants  working to find innovative solutions to acute challenges of the coronavirus pandemic. The result: over 800 ideas on topics such as shopping, childcare and symptom monitoring. A jury, as well as a survey of participants, will decide by 29 March which projects are to receive government funding. EURACTIV Germany reports.

A “hackathon” is traditionally an event where people have a few hours (in this case: 48) to solve concrete challenges – usually through technological innovation. These are often real problems faced by private companies, such as a lack of efficiency in certain production processes. Hackathons often function as stages for start-ups or as talent shows for recruiters.

In addition to these commercial hackathons, there are some that deal with social challenges. One such event was organised by the government last weekend under the title #WirVsVirus (Us v. Virus) – allegedly within four days. Support came from organisations such as Code for Germany and the Impact Hub Berlin, and the patron was the Minister of the Chancellery, Helge Braun (CDU).

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Hacking from Home

The 42,696 international participants did not meet in a multi-purpose hall, as is usually the case with hackathons, but they instead played their part from home.

They organised themselves into teams that tackled specific challenges such as coronavirus tracking, test processes or crisis communication, but also the protection of vulnerable groups or mental health in isolation.

One team came up with a “symptom tracker,” a kind of diary in which suspected cases could enter their symptoms and thus be closely monitored. Health services could thus identify suspicious cases in a simplified way and at a glance. The symptom tracker is already online as a prototype.

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“Take a picture of your toilet paper!”

Another idea was an application that can check whether you are actually at home – not by means of GPS, but by asking you to take a photo of an object in your own home twice a day. Using Machine Learning, the app soon recognises whether the photo was really taken in the same apartment.

Another example is a dashboard on social distancing data, where citizens can observe in real-time if and how social distancing works, for example by using aggregated movement profiles.

Pitches with a baby in tow

“It was an inspiring experience,” Athena Lam, one of the mentors at the event, told EURACTIV. The Canadian runs a consulting firm for content marketing and has already participated in several hackathons. #WirVsVirus was not the first to deal with real social challenges, but she noticed that the global crisis created a sense of urgency among the participants.

What made #WirVsVirus really unique was the fact that everyone was locked up at home. “This really allowed everyone to participate,” said Lam. The event was especially inclusive as all one had to do was open one’s laptop, Lam added. The higher number of women compared to other hackathons did not go unnoticed either, as one participant presented her idea with her baby on her arm. .

Last but not least, it was remarkable that the German government,  normally known for its slow bureaucracy and lack of technical expertise, was able to ensure a remote event of this size in such a short amount of time worked out.

Uncertain future of the projects

It is still difficult to predict what will actually come out of it. After all, winning ideas will not receive direct financial support. The government has promised to help with the implementation of the project in other ways, but it is uncertain exactly how this will be achieved. Lam suspects that the government will instead contact successful teams so that authorities can implement the ideas.

However, she expects positive outcomes. Even if many of the 800 projects are not supported by the government, the ideas will live on.

[Edited by Daniel Eck/Samuel Stolton]

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