I heard via the grapevine about the first ever hackathon to take place in Myanmar about three weeks before it happened. The concept of Code for Change – to invite young hackers to spend a weekend working on social issues of importance to Myanmar and the world – was similar to that of many other hackathons that have taken place in different countries. But it was all new for Myanmar – a country on the verge of a connectivity revolution. Furthermore, no two hackathons ever produce the same outcomes, and it’s always good to make talented hackers aware of the power of coding in relation to tackling social issues – especially as we would like to work with Myanmar’s tech community during the country’s digital transformation. 

As I’m now based in Singapore, I’m able to get a good understanding of whether interesting-sounding events such as these are worthwhile to participate in, and in this case my instincts were correct. 75 ‘pioneers of change’ collaborated for 48 hours in 17 teams on seven pressing subjects, including; more accurate weather information for farmers, data-gathering via mobile phones, crowd-source election monitoring systems and connection with cultural heritage.

Above: Code for Change Myanmar. Photo by Aung Win Htut.

Together with our strategic partner ICCO, we decided to jointly host a session on food-security and data-gathering. Akvo is already working in several countries with ICCO on food-security data-collection via Akvo FLOW, and we have participated in several hackathons before. On this occasion our objective was to inspire and share information with our two food-security teams so they could then develop a demo app. Of course it was tempting to share one of our existing apps, but we could sense that people wanted to try things out for themselves. (They also had some great user feedback about Akvo FLOW – to be continued.) My role was one of mental-coach and mentor during these intense and long days in which no one left the building. “Probably I will sleep for the next 48hrs,” one of the hackers told me, “But it’s all worth it to learn more about social issues and to be able to really contribute by producing code.” Luckily RedBull and Nescafe – sponsors of the event – kept us supplied with caffeine. Other supporters included OoredooInternewsSingtech and the Worldbank.

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Myanmar, which was recently ranked as the best tourist destination in the world for 2014 by the European Council on Tourism and Trade, is becoming a real magnet for business entrepreneurs. And as Code for Change organiser David Medden pointed out in his opening address, whichever team scooped the prize, the fact that we were all present at Myanmar’s first ever hackathon already meant that “Myanmar is a winner, so everyone is a winner”. 

Above and below: photos by Frodo van Oostveen.

Myo Aung of ICCO Myanmar shared a passionate story about the work of ICCO, and the importance of increasing the speed and accuracy of food-security data for their communities. Luckily for me there was a CTO (Chief Translation Officer) on hand as most of the presentations were in the Myanmar language. Myo Aung has also recommended I read The River of Lost Footsteps by Thant Myint-U. It definitely is a must-read to understand Myanmar, from ancient times – when she enjoyed connections across the whole known world from China to the Roman Empire – to the present day, and how perceptions of her remote past still influence the present. Myanmar has always served as a link between different countries and cultures.

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The feeling of working together on social change for a better Myanmar and the hackers’ motivation and eagerness to learn and contribute something useful showed their commitment to making the most of the digital revolution taking place. After the initial presentations, everybody started to code, and all went quiet until the first batch of code broke. You can get an idea of the atmosphere from the Code for Change Facebook page and my photos on Flickr. Most of the participants knew each other from other tech sessions, as colleagues working for international companies or from having their own start-ups. From now on they can add spending weekends at hackathons for social change to their list of connecting experiences. 

The prize for the winning team at the event was a cash investment, Singtech tablets and working space at Ooredoo for three months to develop their idea.  So there was definitely a healthy competitiveness amongst the 17 teams that presented their ideas and working apps to a very professional judging team comprising of Hnin Hnin Pyne (WorldBank), Aye Mya Sun Hlaing (SUN Institute), Thaung Su Nyein (Information Matrix) and Phil Morle (Pollenizer).

The winner was Nilbug – a smart app to notify farmers of nearby pests & diseases – by the Debuggers team. The judges concluded second price for Electage-app (crowd-sourced election monitoring),  that could have big impact and significance as well, especially thinking ahead to upcoming elections next year. Good governance and power to the people of Myanmar will open the way for lots of other invaluable new apps.

The potential for mobile-data collection in Myanmar is enormous, and we believe that continuing to connect our two teams of young hackers with the ICCO country team will have long term benefits. Perhaps Ooredoo would consider matching NGO funding, which could pave the way to Akvo FLOW training involving hackers in Myanmar. 

Before leaving for the airport, I decided to take a detour and explore the city of Yangon a little. Although I don’t speak the Myanmar language, and my taxi-driver no English, I like the ease of connecting with people in Yangon. This was the first time a taxi-driver offered me a cigarette, and thanks to google-maps on my phone, he felt as if I was driving – we were a good team! A city with almost no high-rise buildings or familiar logo’s, Yangon is beautiful. But what stayed with me the most is the people I met during the weekend. It was a great feeling to be part of this event. I hope we all continue to code for change.

Frodo van Oostveen is programme manager at Akvo, based in Singapore.