Pact brings together 18 countries to ‘hack’ Covid-19 solutions

June 12, 2020
Hackathon participants gather virtually.

A comprehensive program that turns urban women coffee vendors in Ethiopia into hubs for spreading accurate messages about Covid-19. A gamified app that offers Covid information, referrals and support for victims of gender-based violence. A network of trained, non-traditional community leaders such as journalists, mailmen and teachers who communicate vital public health information to their neighbors in rural Ukraine.

These were the winning ideas that emerged from a three-day, global virtual hackathon – a first for Pact. Organized by Pact’s innovation practice, the event took place June 3-5 and included 90-plus Pact staff and 30 volunteers, including expert “mentors” from USAID, Facebook, Interaction and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Participants came together in 12 teams to develop programmatic solutions for responding to the pandemic.

“Covid-19 is really the first time in Pact’s history that all of our country offices have faced the same global challenge together,” says Michelle Risinger, Pact’s innovation director. “We knew this was the time to bring all of our knowledge and brain power together to ‘hack’ this problem that every community must respond to.”

The roadmap for Pact's first global hackathon.

Hackathons are time-bound, sprint-like events that for years have been used in the corporate world, mostly by computer programmers, to collaboratively design solutions to complex problems. Pre-Covid, they’ve tended to be in-person gatherings.

Pact decided to organize a virtual hackathon after first launching a Covid response open innovation platform for its global staff, Covid Connection. Based on this initial online collaboration among Pact country offices, the organization identified three key issues in responding to the pandemic: economic impacts, digital connectedness and community preparedness. Those became the three problem statements that the hackathon focused on, with four teams working on solutions for each:

  • How might we support communities with economic activities and financial recovery?
  • How might we address the digital divide and connect communities with digital resources?
  • How might we build community resilience and preparedness for facing Covid-19 and related challenges?

After registering participants and recruiting volunteer mentors, designers, researchers and translators to provide support throughout the hackathon, organizers convened the event using Microsoft Teams, along with a WhatsApp group. In a main plenary space within MS Teams, participants learned the basics of discovering, designing, creating and testing innovative product and service solutions. Then they broke into groups to use those lessons to brainstorm solutions for Pact’s Covid response.

Some teams planned in advance to work together – for example, a group from Pact’s Madagascar office took part specifically to develop a new business model for use in a program – while other teams included participants from across continents. Hackathon hosts manned the plenary space around the clock to accommodate groups working in various time zones.

A hackathon group uses Teams’ whiteboard function to brainstorm.

On the event’s last day, each team presented its solution in the form of a rapid prototype. After evaluators asked questions and Pact staff voted on People’s Choice winners, three ultimate winners were named, one from each track. Those teams will now receive dedicated support from Pact’s innovation practice to further develop their solutions, including assistance with identifying ways to fund them. All of the ideas that were generated are shared on Covid Connection, so Pact staff and programs around the world can leverage them where feasible.

“As an international organization with a footprint in many of the places where Covid-19 was dramatically taking a toll, we saw the hackathon as an opportunity to tap into the lived experiences of our country offices and address those pressing issues in real time,” says Taylor Cruz-Mwila, Pact’s innovation officer. “The hackathon allowed us to accelerate the innovation process by using each other’s expert knowledge and resources to quickly design and build prototypes within 48 hours.”

Cruz-Mwila noted that typical innovation sprints usually last two weeks to two months and are limited by travel budgets and geographic proximity. “We demonstrated how ICT is a necessary tool as we continue to tackle global challenges that can’t wait for traditional timelines.” 

Keneilwe Moroke, a social worker with Pact’s South Africa office, worked on the economic impact challenge. Her team proposed a program to empower adolescent girls and young women to become entrepreneurs producing and selling items to help communities protect their health during Covid-19. 

A hackathon group collaborates virtually.

“I am a very curious person and believe in learning something new every day, and I am forever looking for ways to improve the lives of the people we serve,” Moroke says. “For some time I’ve wanted to come up with a poverty alleviation program for our adolescent girls and young women but didn’t know where to start.”

She says the hackathon showed her that “a problem shared is a problem halved.”

“For those three days, I felt like I was already implementing that program. When you think out of the box and your ideas are heard and supported, you aren’t scared to try new things or be creative. Even though our team didn’t win, the fact that our idea was shared made it seem possible.”

Throughout the hackathon, Pact challenged participants to push their ideas from a conceptual state to a tangible one. Focusing on prototypes helped teams uncover necessary next steps in the innovation process, as well as improve their solutions based on real-time feedback. To support this rapid prototyping process, graphic designers proved to be an invaluable resource. From wireframes to pitch decks to storyboards, Pact now has 12 advanced concepts to test with its end users in hopes of piloting within the next month.

Prototypes presented during the hackathon.

Meghan Majorowski, with USAID’s Center for Innovation and Impact, served as a volunteer mentor during the hackathon for teams working on the community preparedness challenge.

“I was impressed by how remarkably knowledgeable these teams were about their communities and the challenges they’re facing,” Majorowski says. “Where I saw participants getting the most value was in learning this process for zeroing in on a problem and then identifying and refining solutions.”

Adds Kearney Newman, of the University of Colorado’s ATLAS Institute, who volunteered as a researcher, “It was an amazing show of collaboration across the world, across cultures, across time zones and all sorts of borders and boundaries.”

Cruz-Mwila says that collaboration is what made the hackathon so valuable.

“I was so inspired to see how everyone came together and trusted each other, especially while moving at a rapid pace. What makes it even more special is that we were able to do this in the midst of a global crisis where there seem to be new barriers every day.”

Says Roland Kovats, who leads a Pact governance project in Ukraine and helped host the hackathon, “We helped staff see problems as opportunities, and we built an enabling environment for creative solutions.”

The crowdsourcing platform HeroX is partnering with Pact to run a virtual hackathon on the same challenges now through Aug. 6. Anyone can learn more and register here.

All images by Pact.