Geeks across Pakistan are reaching for their white hats and joining hackathons to develop tech-based solutions to the problems impairing the country's dysfunctional government. Michelle Stockman reports from Islamabad.
Lanky programmers trade volleys across ping-pong tables on the seventh floor of Islamabad's Ufone building, one of the few office towers puncturing the sleepy Pakistani capital's skyline. Thirty-odd winners of Islamabad's recent "Civic Hackathon" reunited here to claim their prizes - a few hundred dollars per team - for public service apps they created during a three-day all-volunteer coding marathon in February.
Twenty-one-year-old computer science major Zaheer Uddin and his two teammates travelled from the troubled northwest province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for the hackathon. Their app, "Quick Disease Early Tracking System," automatically compiles daily reports of diseases like dengue or polio with data gathered from district hospitals. Their goal is to assist health ministries and NGOs to develop quicker response times and fewer casualties.
Uddin feels he must use his skills to help his home province, currently ravaged by endemic illness and plagued by militant violence.
"This is our birthplace so we remain hopeful. Our passion lies in coding. It's an area where we can make a difference, so Inshallah, things will improve," Uddin said.
Against a backdrop of terrorism, crime, chronic power outages and a faltering economy, a loose coalition of civic-minded tech geeks have undertaken a mission to transform broken aspects of Pakistan's government and public spaces. Guided by the principle of "Government 2.0," they seek to create collaborative, open-source technologies that improve transparency and efficiency.
Leading the charge is Code for Pakistan, a non-profit inspired by a similar program in the United States. The Pakistani iteration was started by Sheba Najmi, a former Yahoo product developer originally from Karachi. Since 2013, she has organized four "civic hackathons" in cities across the country. Hundreds of people from backgrounds such as computer programming, healthcare, and media have participated, deploying nine web, mobile and SMS applications - with several more in progress.
Out of the Peshawar hackathon came "NoKunda," a crowdsourcing app that encourages users to report illegal electricity connections on public power lines. Karachi hackers developed "Report a Rishwat," which allows citizens to send text message reports of bribe demands. "Savaree," a carpooling app that won audience favorite in Lahore, was recently picked up for incubation by Invest2Innovate and one of Pakistan's top tech universities, Lahore University for Management Sciences (LUMS). Its main developer quit her job to work on the app full-time.
Najmi said these hackathons have tapped into a reservoir of untapped civic activism.
"We attracted all kinds of folks who felt empowered to do more than use their voices to complain. They saw they could use their skills in a way that modern technology allows."
Challenge for government
But these altruists face an uphill battle. Beyond the inherent inefficiencies of its government bureaucracy, Pakistan currently ranks as the 50th most corrupt country in the world, out of 175, as assessed on Transparency International's corruption perception index. In a 2011 study, 54 percent of the people said they had paid a bribe to police officials and 62 percent to revenue/property registration officials. The majority felt that "eliminating corruption is ... a lost cause."
Code for Pakistan Operations Director Fatima Akhtar said civic hackers face multiple challenges in creating useful apps that gain traction. Right to information laws mandate that programmers have access to government data, but it's usually only available on hard copy paper files.
Another technological complication is smartphone usage. While mobile phone use across Pakistan is vast - 136.6 million out of the country's estimated 193 million population - only three percent have smartphones, according to the Pew Research Center. Teams are encouraged to produce SMS-based solutions for their apps for maximum crowdsourcing.
A further hurdle she said, is gaining "champions" in the government who welcome outside hands digging around in government processes.
"There are a lot of smart people who get it, because they understand the importance of civic tech and open data, but it's a bureaucracy. It has its huge processes. It's a big challenge."
Politicians have responded to Code for Pakistan's overtures. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa IT board funded a six-month fellowship program for young programmers. Islamabad's Director of Excise and Taxation Department Nauman Yousaf provided problem statements for hackers to inspire immediately applicable solutions.
"They were based on real life challenges that citizens face in availing services. The hackathon provided the right platform for us to engage with young entrepreneurs, technologists and students and come up with solutions."
Established tech executives have also lent their talents as mentors. Owais Anjum serves as president of the Islamabad chapter of OPEN, a worldwide collective of Pakistani entrepreneurs, and runs an ongoing Civic Innovation Lab to foster prototypes developed during the hackathons. He encourages young programmers to think with multiple audiences in mind.
"Just relying on the government for the success of your project is not enough," he told the winners of the Islamabad hackathon. "Make them citizen-focused," he said, as the public and other organizations, like NGOs and private companies, may take interest.
Creators of Islamabad's "Audience Favorite App" took this advice to heart. They started "School Source," described by team graphic designer Amna Majid as "Yelp" for schools. It serves as a rating portal for both public and private schools on factors such as cleanliness, teaching quality, and security.
At 38, Amna considers herself much older than most of the twenty-somethings she met through the hackathon. Their enthusiasm inspired her.
"I had completely lost faith in the youth of the country, but then I saw how great their ideas were and how motivated they are. It was so heartening to see that there is hope for Pakistan."