Hacking a way out of the coronavirus
The M.E Exchange
10X Technology

Hacking a way out of the coronavirus

Defined as the process in which a group of computer programmers, designers and more collaborate on a software solution, hackathons can engender large-scale innovative products to help solve the current health crisis. Hundreds of new ideas have already emerged, the next step being to make them reality.

DUBAI | Keith J Fernandez

Among its other effects, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the shortage of doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals around the world. Aggravating the problem is the fact that identifying and meeting staff needs can be a complex and time-consuming process.

Enter Health Hero Match, a website designed to connect medical workers with hospitals facing real-time personnel shortages. Created by a team of students from seven universities across the UAE, Jordan and the US, the project was the winner of this year’s Annual NYUAD International Hackathon for Social Good in the Arab World.

“We earnestly believe Health Hero Match can make a positive change in the world. This pandemic showed that the problem we address is a very real one, and there will always be a need for the most effective utilisation of our frontline heroes,” says development team member and NYU Abu Dhabi student Máté Hekfusz. Our task now is to take it from hackathon lightning-in-a-bottle to a fully realised application which can be deployed to healthcare sectors around the world.”


The NYUAD project is just one example of how COVID-19 hackathons have been leveraged to find desperately needed solutions across the medical, business and lifestyle sectors in the new normal. These sprint-like events were first popularised by the software community as round-the-clock crowdsourcing sessions to solve specific technical problems.

The biggest hackathons can draw thousands of participants from different countries and age groups. In April, over 15,000 coders, engineers and designers joined The Global Hack, an initiative supported by LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman and former Y-Combinator president Sam Altman. The European Union, the World Health Organization and UNESCO have all announced or held similar events.

In the Gulf region, Dubai launched its One Million Arab Coders COVID-19 Hackathon, with a total of $50,000 in prize money available to programmers who develop innovative solutions linked to the coronavirus outbreak. Saudi Arabia recently announced cash prizes of $250,000 for its Hope Hackathon, which focused on digital health, home entertainment and esports.

In May, nearly 500 people participated in the #MBRUHacksCOVID19 hackathon organised by the Mohammed Bin Rashid University of Medicine and Health Sciences (MBRU) and the American University of Sharjah, among others. The winning solution, Bounceback, used machine learning algorithms and tokenisation to identify, verify and provide immediate subsidy relief to vulnerable communities and individuals affected financially by the health crisis.

Hundreds of new ideas have already emerged from such events. In India, women in tech have shown how blockchain can help check counterfeit prescription drugs. The Jordan Pandemic Hackathon produced Healthtech, which helps epidemiological teams track infection locations using crowdsourced data. Netsahem, a payment solutions designer that enables Egyptian NGOs to manage their finances online, came first in Cairo’s SeekNotHide Hackathon this April, while UAE fintech startup PointCheckout won the EUvsVirus Hackathon.


What happens to the winners of a hackathon? For Hekfusz and his team, the publicity was enough – they were approached by several startup incubators and accelerators and took one of the opportunities offered.

For those not as fortunate, a ‘matchathon’ is the next logical step forward. At these pitch events, innovators get together with investors, corporations, public authorities, academia and other backers to scale up and commercialise their products.

“COVID-19 is providing us with this incredible reset opportunity with the rapid acceleration of trends like video conferencing, online commerce and an opportunity to inspire and mobilise humanity as one race to work towards restoring our planet – things we waited for years to happen,” says Dhruv Boruah, founder of CommonVC.

The London-based impact sustainability incubator and angel syndicate is behind a recent environment-focused hackathon and a follow-up pitch day at the end of June. The contest drew 70 teams of 900 participants from 79 countries. The matchathon saw those whittled down to 12. Investment details are yet to be made public.

According to Boruah, investment is sorely needed for hackathon concepts to become reality.

“Let us…invest in innovation since [it] is the only way out of this crisis. This is going to be hard, but so was going to the moon,” he says.