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Pakathon – A call-to-action

September 24, 2013

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The Pakathon team pictured. — Courtesy Photo
The Pakathon team pictured. — Courtesy Photo
— Courtesy Photo
— Courtesy Photo

It began as a dinner conversation between two young Pakistani-Americans, Asad Badruddin and Zheela Qaiser, who wanted to contribute positively to Pakistan. Despite the miles between their current lives and their home country, these expats were well aware of the challenges being faced here. From frequent load-shedding to disaster relief mismanagement, they knew that all problems needed a collective group thinking approach to solve them. That is when Pakathon was conceived.

Traditionally, a hackathon is a crowd-sourced event where organisers source the savviest coders, developers and designers from a community to solve a particular programming challenge. As Pakathon was uniquely focused on Pakistan, it was meant to hack away the challenges of some of the important sectors of Pakistan, such as education, health, disaster relief, violence prevention, energy, and agriculture. Madeeha Channah, a US-based organiser explains, “Pakathon is a social impact hackathon where students and young professionals from across the United States and universities of Pakistan participated in a 3-day event in Boston to find or develop solutions for challenges in six key sectors”.

The group of activists who set out to do so with the help of community “mojo” and technology, all have one thing in common – the desire to serve as catalysts for sustainable development in the country. When Pakathon transformed into a real-life event, the team expanded to include Batool Raza, Nabil Khan, Osama Badar, Wardah Inam and Madeeha Channah. This team of young professionals from Boston came together to motivate the global Pakistani to try solve the challenges faced by society.

Seating entrepreneurs with developers, college students with seasoned academicians, the Pakathon was envisioned to foster a brand new community, one that will continue to work on solving challenges in collaboration, past the constraints of the event itself. Technology gurus were paired up with mentors (with complimentary skill sets) to design tangible solutions. Despite the name, being a techie was not a requirement; wanting to positively contribute to the world was.

The hackathon’s preparation was spread out between Boston, Lahore and Islamabad. It was designed to be a 40-hour marathon ‘un-conference’, where mentors and folks worked together to draft solutions. From re-imagining the classroom to simplifying the sowing cycle for rural farmers, the project could be anything. It could be a software or hardware-based solution. The significance of Boston as the site is not hard to see as it is fast morphing from a historical hub for academic institutions such as MIT, Boston University, Harvard University into the ‘Silicon Valley of the East Coast’.

In Boston, Pakathon was co-hosted by Hack/Reduce at Boston’s biggest data-hacker space. It was supported by OPEN (Organisation of Pakistani Entrepreneurs), and student organisations at MIT and Harvard.

Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and National University of Management and Technology (NUST) signed up to host simultaneous events in Lahore and Islamabad. Pakathon teamed up with the Human Development Foundation of North America to help them develop the best solution for their particular challenges. The organisation also promised to give out a recognition award for a solution they would like to support. Techies and non-techies from all three locations pitched their ideas to the judging panel via video-conferencing. The winning team, LookOut 360, was from Lahore, which aims to counter violence by ‘crime-mapping’ solutions and help urban citizens avoid trouble areas via mobile phone updates, or visual mapping applications. One of the pitches that generated excitement was “Clinic Click”, a smartphone application that provides a map to nearby medical facilities via emergency SMS. In Boston, AgriPak won with their SMS-based application that provides up-to-date information to farmers’ mobile phones. The winning teams gained valuable mentorship, networking, and technical expertise to support their projects to completion. Ms Channah, who also runs the Boston Muslim Health Initiative, said, “There has been a great response, especially from the Pakistani universities and start-ups. The response from Pakistani-Americans in the local communities has also been wonderful! We have professors from BU (Boston University), MIT, and Harvard all volunteering to be mentors for Pakathon,”

Events like Pakathon have the potential of becoming genuine platforms for help, since every single person is a stakeholder. When there is a truly grassroots movement, the only real capital required are willing people, who volunteer their time as a testament of their belief in the cause.

The Road Ahead

Team Pakathon’s long-term focus is to hold annual hackathons and to foster a larger, border-free community stemming from Boston to all the main cities in Pakistan. “We would be looking for ‘Pakathon Fellows’; effectively project managers, students or young professionals willing to stay in Karachi for the sake of continuity of the project. We would like to see this become an annual event in the future.” Pakathon is a digitally empowered call-to-action; a plea for citizens to stop the talk and start the action.