Hackathon Winners Create Social Change

“I remember the moment the emails were sent, informing us that we got accepted [to the competition]. Dlovan called me, and he said in a deep voice ‘Mr. Sulaiman, we will win the Hackathon.’

And I replied, ‘Yes, we will win.’”

Sulaiman, an instructor at one of our IT hubs in northern Iraq that you might remember from a recent podcast episode, spent a frantic weekend in April using every bit of his coding and design expertise in a contest to tackle one of Iraq’s nagging urban problems using tech. This event, the first nation-wide hackathon in Iraq’s history, brought together more than 700 tech-minded youth—including some of our IT instructors and students.

Sulaiman formed a team with two of his students, Dlovan and Awjalan. Together they are two Syrians and an Iraqi, all displaced because of war. To be honest though, that is the least interesting part of their stories. They are smart, imaginative, and driven to tackle big challenges.

What challenge could be bigger than figuring out life as a refugee? This team of three set their minds on tackling the problem of plastic waste choking the life out of Iraq’s natural environment.

Our IT teachers love Preemptive Love sticker packs! Photo by Erin Wilson/Preemptive Love

In developing countries like Iraq, industrial and social change happens in fits and starts that coincide with periods of peace. In the last decade, as economic sanctions imposed on Iraq eased, residents were eager to play catch-up with the rest of the word. There is a growing demand for cheaper convenience products that make salaries stretch farther, and save time and effort in their everyday lives.

Just like the convenience products that you use daily, most are imported and made of (or wrapped in) cheap plastic. The problem? The ability to deal with the waste connected with these products hasn’t kept pace with imports. There is currently little ability for regular Iraqis to recycle. Instead, both urban and rural environments are littered with used plastic shopping bags, water and soda bottles, and molded plastic packaging. Plastic waste that is collected with household garbage is often incinerated—adding toxic chemicals to air already thick with dust.

Youth in Iraq want the convenience of modern life, of course. But many also feel a different level of personal responsibility for their chosen lifestyle than their parents’ generation. They are jumping at the chance to solve big problems and push their skills.

Including people like Sulaiman, Dlovan, and Awjalan.

“We kicked off the day with full cups of coffee, and we started working. During the first two sessions, we were ahead of everyone and the mentors and the organizers noticed that immediately. After the sessions we started brainstorming, sketching, getting feedback from the mentors and the organizers.”

In a weekend sandwiched between very busy weeks, the team gave this competition their all. “I never slept. Not even for one second. For 36 hours.” For Sulaiman, the energy of the event was potent. “I have a confession though—I consumed a lot of coffee that kept me awake for this long night.”

Design mock-ups created during the Hackathon weekend. Photos provided by Sulaiman Abdulkareem

By the end of the weekend, the team had something impressive to show for their efforts.

“Plastic waste can’t be solved by awareness alone.” Sulaiman’s team knew that in order to solve Iraq’s waste issues, a comprehensive approach was needed. They came up with a solution–a smartphone application–that would connect plastic producers and consumers with local recycling centers, and incentivize participation.

That might not sound unique to you, and you would be right. But here is the “special sauce” built into their plan—they would employ freelance workers to handle collection and distribution. In a country with tens of thousands of unemployed and underemployed people, their design would not only take care of the environment, but it would also take care of vulnerable people.

A team of IT hub students working hard at their application. Photo by Erin Wilson/Preemptive Love

At a competition in a different part of the country, some of our staff and students formed teams to design apps that would tackle urban traffic problems, reduce household waste, and make recycling fun for kids.

They got the chance to put into practice the skills they learned or developed in previous months at our IT hubs. They got the chance to engage in competition with their peers, much like they’ll do after graduation.

And for Sulaiman’s team—Dlovan’s prediction was right. They won their city competition, and with it a cash prize to help them turn their design into reality!

Investment in our IT hubs not only produces a skilled workforce, but it encourages young Syrians and Iraqis to tackle big issues, and step into the role of problem-solver for their countries.

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