Pakathon: Hacking into progress for Pakistan

Published October 8, 2014
Young entrepreneurs are motivated to help Pakistan. —Photo courtesy: Louis Li
Young entrepreneurs are motivated to help Pakistan. —Photo courtesy: Louis Li

In the trendiest part of downtown Toronto, hundreds of young entrepreneurs gathered over a weekend in September to find solutions to Pakistan’s development challenges. They were there to engage “the world to reshape Pakistan.”

An eclectic group of almost 100 young men and women, some with no Pakistani heritage, got together to address the biggest challenges in education, energy, health, housing, human rights, and retail in Pakistan.

The youth were mentored by Canadian experts over the three-day event where some entrepreneurs working in teams toiled for 48 hours straight to come up with actionable solutions.

Downtown Toronto is a happening place on Friday evenings and over the weekend. For young revellers, the city has plenty to offer. Why then, did a 100-strong youth and their mentors cram into a large studio of a software firm pouring over challenges in a country located thousands of miles away?

They called it Pakathon: A hackathon for Pakistan’s development challenges.

From last year: Pakathon – A call-to-action

A movement that started in Boston reached Toronto and several other cities, bringing together hundreds of youth and their mentors to brainstorm solutions for Pakistan’s development challenges over a short period and then present their solutions to a panel of judges who would rank projects based on their utility and ease of implementation.

The Toronto Pakathon ran from September 26 to 28. Individual entrepreneurs presented their ideas on Friday night and invited others to join their teams. In 60 seconds or less, each entrepreneur presented the ‘big’ idea to the audience.

Teams were formed late Friday evening. Starting Saturday morning, they were busy researching and developing concepts, prototypes, and business plans. By Sunday afternoon, they were ready to present their plans to a panel of judges.

Integrated ambulance dispatch system

The winning project proposed an integrated ambulatory response system for urban Pakistan. At present, several private and public sector ambulance operators run an uncoordinated service. In case of an emergency, several ambulances arrive when only one or few are needed. At other occasions, none arrives in time to rescue the patient.

The solution: a unified dispatch system that directs the closest ambulance to the site. This would require the ambulances to be GPS enabled and the operators to be willing to share their fleet details with the shared dispatch system.

Also read: ‘Civic hackathon’ to improve e-governance

This has obvious benefits for the critically injured or ill in Pakistan. Such systems exist in developed countries. Bringing this system to urban Pakistan requires modest investment, but a willingness by ambulance operators to pool resources. The IT-based solution could be implemented in less time with exceeding returns.

Geo-located health emergency alerts

Another IT solution for the health sector involved a text-message based alert system which would send a distress signal to pre-registered healthcare professionals in the vicinity, who may volunteer to attend to a person in distress while the ambulance is still in transit.

Imagine if a large registry of healthcare professionals who are willing to volunteer in emergencies is developed. Once registered, their location in real time is known to the system through their smart phones.

Now, if a child chokes on a small toy and is in distress. The parents call for an ambulance while someone texts for help. Based on the family’s location, a distress call is texted to the registered healthcare professionals who are in the vicinity of the family in need. The healthcare professional receives the text and realises that someone on the same street is in need of medical attention. They can rush to assist while the family awaits the ambulance.

Again, such a system can save lives.

Pre-packaged deals on wedding management is pitched as a one-stop shop for weddings. ShadiExpress proposed to create a vendor of record registry of contractors that provide services for weddings. These may include wedding hall operators, caterers, tailors and dressmakers, DJs, photographers, videographers, designers, event planners and others.

The proposal looked similar to the hit Indian movie, Band Baja Baraat. Based on pre-packaged rates, the bride and groom to be could pick the modules to plan their wedding.

Clients will benefit from cheaper rates made possible by the vendor of record registry. Contractors will benefit because they would focus on delivery rather than spending time on negotiating with the clients.

Automated legal document generation

Yet another IT-based solution involved a legal document generation system which would create documents required by local judicial procedures.

The current practice is to retain the services of legal experts to generate documents. However, in Pakistan’s legal system, which is pushed to the limit by excessive land claims, a large number of legal documents are proforma documents which could be programmed for automatic generation. Such an innovation will reduce the prohibitive legal costs for the middle and lower middle classes.

It was heartening to see innovation brought to bear challenges faced by Pakistan. Generating practical solutions with little or no market entry barriers is what these young entrepreneurs were after. Their solutions could save millions and more.

Know more: Tech talk: Investing in hackathons

Surprisingly, the Pakathon in Toronto was not attended by any Pakistani investment bank. The proposed solutions provided bankable projects which could save lives and generate value for the investors. For the next Pakathon, venture capitalists in Pakistan may want to pay attention.

The young entrepreneurs are motivated to help Pakistan. Their sincerity and devotion was obvious. In the words of Nabeel (one of the organisers):

"Ghar ki baat hai, iss ko to kerna hi hai"
(It’s for our very own home; it just has to be done)



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