#SmartDevelopmentHack: Germany searches for COVID-19 solutions

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Can hackathons help find solutions to the coronavirus pandemic? Photo by: Matthew Henry / Burst

BERLIN — Marcel Heyne knew he was sitting on a solution to a problem that emerged early in the COVID-19 pandemic: How to get information about the virus to people in rural communities with high levels of poverty, where literacy is low.

For several years, Heyne has been building Audiopedia, a stockpile of audio information on critical subjects that are particularly relevant during a pandemic, including health promotion and disease prevention. The information is translated into a variety of languages and can be tailored to specific contexts. It is also free and easily shared on messaging services, like WhatsApp, overcoming the problems of distance and illiteracy.

Audiopedia, a nonprofit founded by the women’s empowerment organization URIDU, usually partners with local NGOs to distribute those messages. The problem was that the scale of the coronavirus crisis exceeded Audiopedia’s capacity — currently two core employees and hundreds of volunteers. Enter Germany’s #SmartDevelopmentHack, supported by the Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development, or BMZ.

The hack, which is funded with official development assistance, was designed specifically to surface platforms or innovations that could help communities in the global south respond to COVID-19, to connect those innovations to organizations that could leverage them to develop specific responses and to offer them a funding boost of up to €3 million ($3.5 million).

Out of hundreds of entries, Audiopedia’s partnership was one of the nine winners announced at the end of May. A BMZ spokesperson declined to reveal the overall amount of funding going toward the hack winners because they are still refining their projects. Heyne and the other winners are now rushing to deploy the first phase of their projects, with most hoping to be launched by next month.

“This puts us on a growth path and helps us to make our vision happen,” Heyne said.

Hackathons, seen as low-cost, low-commitment approaches to incubating new, tech-heavy solutions for the development sector, have found champions in private companies such as Microsoft, and even among United Nations bodies.

Vitalice Meja worries, though, about the implications of a government turning to a hack to guide its global coronavirus response. Meja is the executive director at Reality of Aid Africa, a continental effort to evaluate aid effectiveness. A hack is scattershot and can overvalue the role of the private sector or outside actors, where Germany and other donor governments should be emphasizing domestic plans for responding to COVID-19, he said.

“This needs to take place in the context of a national strategy that has been developed,” he said. “It needs to be implementing the government agenda.”

Sustainable solutions

The #SmartDevelopmentHack was a way for BMZ, working with the German Corporation for International Development, or GIZ, “to adapt proven solutions locally and to promote innovations that provide digital help directly on the spot,” the BMZ spokesperson said in an email.

A group of potential partners, including local GIZ offices and NGOs, sifted through the proposals and identified any they wanted to support. Heyne ended up matched with two: the German Leprosy and Tuberculosis Relief Association, which will leverage its contacts to help Audiopedia expand in communities across the global south, and GIZ Pakistan, which wants to use the technology to assist in its projects in the semi-autonomous Fata region.

Together, they refined the proposal and then pitched again to a jury of German officials and tech experts, who selected nine winners and 11 runners-up. Most of the winning proposals, like Heyne’s, focused on improving distribution of information about COVID-19.

The idea is not only that they will take steps to respond to the coronavirus, but that the investment from the hackathon will help the projects become sustainable. Scalability was one of the key criteria for determining the winners, alongside impact and how much the project leveraged existing development efforts.

So while the Audiopedia team is putting together a six-month plan for its first phase, focusing specifically on the coronavirus response, they are also thinking about a second phase that could stretch out over another 12 months at least, while transforming the project into something that continues after the pandemic.

Are hackathons the answer?

#SmartDevelopmentHack is not BMZ’s first foray into hackathons, but it is an expansion.

In 2018-19, the ministry sponsored hacks in West Africa to identify approaches for improving the dissemination of information during disease outbreaks. Those events were limited to local students and experts.

The latest hack was open to German companies and NGOs, as well as people from partner countries across the global south. Three of the winners emerged from solutions proposed by organizations in the global south, while the remaining six emerged from companies or NGOs that were either German or had already received significant support from donors. 

“This needs to take place in the context of a national strategy that has been developed.”

— Vitalice Meja, executive director, Reality of Aid Africa

Several winners were also from the private sector — all of which raises questions, Meja said, about who is benefiting from German ODA and the government’s ongoing efforts to tie development assistance to the private sector.

For Brain Iweh, one of the for-profit hack winners, the initiative offered an unlikely opportunity to get support for a solution he is certain will make communities safer from COVID-19.

Iweh runs a company, Agriconnekt, that is trying to make physical markets irrelevant. His team purchases produce from local farmers and stockpiles it in warehouses. Customers can then go online to order and the food is delivered to their door without physical contact.

Although it is already active in parts of Nigeria, the hack victory will allow Agriconnekt to grow its operations and expand to Kenya, in partnership with FSPN-Africa, a food security NGO based there. Mercy Corps Kenya is also assisting, since neither FSPN nor Agriconnekt are eligible to receive large grants under GIZ regulations.

“With this funding and additional technical support, we can capitalize on the digital market for the agricultural sector in Africa,” Iweh told Devex, while leveraging partnerships in the development sector that would never have happened without the hack.

Meja agrees that good ideas can emerge from these approaches, but especially where ODA is involved, he said the German government should be working with local officials to make sure the funding is supporting their pandemic response.

Because while the hack represents a fraction of the money the German government is prepared to spend — BMZ has proposed a €1 billion global COVID-19 response this year — it sends a message.

“The biggest danger you have is the issue around partner countries or poor countries having their own strategy,” he said.

In the absence of a strategy, the goal should not be to impose one, but for donor governments to “use the experiences they have with the disease to share lessons learned, to design clear national strategies on how to deal with this.”

About the author

  • Andrew Green

    Andrew Green is a Devex Contributing Reporter based in Berlin. His coverage focuses primarily on health and human rights and he has previously worked as Voice of America's South Sudan bureau chief and the Center for Public Integrity's web editor.