Tech wizards code for charity at UCL

27 October 2011

UCL hosted hundreds of designers, coders and creative thinkers this weekend, while they pitted their wits against global problems. In the ground floor of Civil , Environmental & Geomatic Engineering, students from CEGE and Computer Science worked with hackers on a Water Hackathon. Across the Quad, the North Cloisters became a centre for top developers from as far away as the US to hunker down and work non-stop on tasks for charities world-wide at the first GiveCamp in the UK.

Water Hackathon is also a global event, backed by the World Bank as part of the Random Hacks of Kindness network. It aims to attack problems in water distribution using new ideas, better data and advanced instruments. At UCL, the European site, Dr. Julien Harou, an environmental engineer and water management specialist  worked with computer science lecturer Emmanuel Letier to bring together skilled people from water management and coding communities. Students and professionals from inside and outside UCL looked at problems from all round the world – from mapping open defecation sites to incorporating water use in social media. Fuelled by pizza and burritos, the teams worked for 30 hours for prizes including conferences with top tech teams, and cuddly Google Android plushes.

Judges from Google, UCL Engineering and nominated Taarifa, a project developed on the open-source crowd-sourcing platform Ushahidi, as the winner. Taarifa allows geotagging of text messages from Tanzanian citizens reporting water or sanitation issues, interfaces with smart phones and web browsers, and enabled authorities on the other end to handle and priorities requests. The Taarifa team win the chance to demo their work to IBM water managers worldwide, as well as to the Tanzanian Commission for Science and Technology. You can see everything that the hackers produced, plus photos and videos from the event, on the RHOK website.

Givecamp has a much broader remit, considering problems put forward by any charities. 120 volunteers from startups, tech giants and everything in between contributed an estimated £100,000 worth of development time (these skills don’t come cheap!) to produce 3 new websites, 2 data structure solutions, an online information portal prototype, a ticketing solution, a secure community discussion forum and a simple customer relationship management tool. The beneficiaries covered a wide range of good causes – from aid for women fleeing domestic violence, to spiritual development for prisoners and community building for young people with mental health issues. You can see all the charities involved and the projects they produced on the GiveCampUK website.

Skilled coders and attendees worked for 70 hours solid, fuelled by kind donations from tech industry companies and others. Any left over donations were taken to nearby hostel, St Mungo’s. The atmosphere during the weekend was positive and buzzing. “I cannot believe the effort the guys put in during the event, and it was astounding to see the results after only 41 hours together. I will never forget the experience.” said Paul Stack, GiveCamp UK organiser. “We are thrilled that UCL Engineering were able to provide a venue – GiveCamp UK couldn’t have happened without this.”

Perhaps the last word should come from one of the charity workers who will be using the work done at GiveCamp: “Maybe you don’t realise”, she said, “But your work will literally change people’s lives.”

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