A hackathon (from the words ‘hacker’ and ‘marathon’) is an event where programmers, designers and others in the computing field collaborate to create or improve on software programs and other digital projects. Fun fact: Facebook’s Like button was born in a hackathon. The ideas generated at these gatherings are clearly meant to make our lives better, by revolutionizing the way we communicate, learn new information – and tackle social problems.
Spotlight Digital Challenge for Central Asia and Afghanistan was held on April 1-3 and supported by the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) with a goal to present innovative solutions using digital technology to combat violence against women and girls. A total of 58 projects were presented in three directions. The Kazakh team called ‘Ctrl Alt Del’ took first place with their project on cyberbullying prevention in Almaty schools. The four members split the prize money of $2500 in the category of Data Collection on Violence.
QazMonitor talked to the winners about social hackathons, girls in STEM, and the secret to achieving a winning streak.
What is Spotlight Digital Challenge?
The Spotlight Digital Challenge addressed new forms of violence triggered by the development of digital technology and the potential of information technology to combat violence. It was organized as part of the Spotlight Initiative which is the world's largest concerted effort to end all forms of violence against women and girls by 2030. It is a global, multi-year partnership between the European Union and the United Nations.
The organizers received 835 applications from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. During the registration process, 73 teams were formed, including mixed teams that brought together people from several Central Asian countries.
The prize pool of the competition was $20,000 spread across three tracks: prevention of violence, data collection on violence, and violence survivor support.
‘9 am or 9 pm?’ ‘Yes!’
The ‘Ctrl Alt Del’ team members were working on the project from different countries. Aziza Ibragim, the project manager, kept the team focused from Kazan in Russia. Azhar Sultanskih, the designer, prepared the presentation from Vienna, where she is studying architecture for her undergrad. Aruzhan Koshkarova, the developer and presenter, is a student of computer and data science in Massachusetts, U.S. Esentai Kurmanbai, another developer, resides in Almaty, where he is doing bachelor’s at International IT University.
The members first met in 2016 at Makerspace—a creative lab space established by American Corner. Aziza used to be a mentor there, and the rest of the team attended STEM classes at the lab. The friendship they fostered there eventually brought the IT-heads to collaborate and share many victories throughout the years.
Five years have passed, but the creative fire is still burning.
How do you create a team for such events?
“Usually, I send a message to each of the guys and then create a chat devoted to a specific project. We’ve had many line-ups over these years. My teammates also show initiative and invite each other to hackathons,” Aziza shared.
Cyberbullies, log out!
When it was their turn to present, the team introduced the project with sobering statistics on the rate of teenage suicide in Kazakhstan. They believe there is a direct connection between the data and cyberbullying.
“We were shocked by the cases of school students committing suicide because of online bullying. Even if our impact won’t be significant, it is still worth fighting against. The topic had been bothering us long before the competition, so we thought it was finally time to deal with it,” Aziza said.
Azhar noted that the pandemic has led to an increase in the number of negative comments online, which children are finding it hard to escape due to being forced to stay at home. But the problem fails to garner any serious attention. Aruzhan highlighted the challenge they had with finding studies on this topic: “We could barely find any statistics on cyberbullying in the Kazakh databases, as if the problem does not exist.”
Hack the hackathons
As a project manager, Aziza shared some insights on what helped ‘Ctrl Alt Del’ win $2500.
“It is important to listen to feedback from judges and experts. At first, our ideas were all over the place: we were trying to solve too many problems. A hackathon provides a strictly limited amount of time to work, so we narrowed down our research. After the second feedback session with experts, we decided to reconsider everything and use more effective tools, such as Amazon Comprehend [a language-processing service that can analyze the sentiment of comments].”
After that, developers Esentai and Aruzhan put their coding skills to the test.
Aruzhan said: “I was interpreting the data. Our project solved a specific task: to program a machine to determine whether a comment is positive, negative, or neutral. Therefore, we managed to prove to the judges that it is indeed possible to develop a solution in such a short time.” Esentai further explained: “Our web-service also included a map with Almaty schools rated on safety. We gathered comments from Telegram chats to analyze. If your technical experience is relevant, the time limit won’t be a difficulty.”
In turn, Azhar made the idea clear and easy to digest thanks to effective design. “We used some templates, but I also visualized the map and tried to make our presentation stand out. The goal was not to create a ready-to-use solution, but rather a concept. So, designing a slideshow with relevant visuals was needed.”
Success or a burden?
Spotlight Digital is one of many competition wins listed in the team’s portfolio. They win because their projects are brilliant and beneficial to society. They get the well-deserved media attention. But as the ball got rolling in 2017, so did the mounting pressure to become the next Elon Musk of social services.
The IT crew recall the time they took the Senior Grand Prize at Technovation Challenge in 2017 in the Sillicon Valley. The competition was for female participants only, and the aim was to provide more opportunities for women in STEM. Aziza, Azhar and Aruzhan along with other girls developed an app called QamCare that sends out an emergency message when a person is in danger. To secure first place and a chance to meet with the CEO of Google in person, they had to beat 102 teams from over 30 countries. The international success got the team extensive coverage by both Kazakh and international media – expectations were high.
As of today, QamCare is not listed in any app store.
What happened to QamCare? Did you stop the development?
“To be frank, we finished the project and put it on [Apple’s] App Store, but we stopped maintaining it. It happened naturally: team members moved all over the world. In the future, we will not let that happen to other projects. In our defense, nowadays iPhones have an SOS signal enabled by shaking your phone; other solutions exist. We let our product loose, and I regret it. On a positive note, that was our lesson to learn,” explains Aziza.
“We were a bunch of 17–20-year-olds. It felt like people were expecting us to give up everything else and stay focused on QamCare only. We had universities to enroll to and other work.”
Achievements to inspire
As seasoned participants in tech competitions, what projects would you pick as your favorites?
Aruzhan: “Definitely this one. I love social hackathons, and we had the topic of cyberbullying on our radar back in the days of Technovation. At that time, we lacked ideas, so it was a great opportunity to finally raise the issue at Spotlight Digital Challenge.”
Esentai: “It’s hard to pick just one. In 2018, we participated in Robocon Games [a robotics competition]. We spent nearly six months designing two robots—a huge workload. We had to change the wheel for one of the robots minutes before the finals, but we managed to win. As for the latest challenge, it was memorable because we were in different cities and time zones and still found time to work despite that. Also, back in my school days, I worked on a ‘green’ project to combat air pollution. I hope to implement it someday.”
Aziza: “I would choose the one I organized. It was called ‘Girls in STEM Summer Camp’. I selected the participants myself, while Aruzhan and Azhar helped out as teachers. Esentai taught web-development. That was a fully-fledged camp, where girls were learning basics of programming and modelling. Then, they teamed up to create their own projects. It started in 2017, and even after my departure the project is still running under the name of Maker Camp, with the support of mentors from American Corners.”
“I’d choose QamCare because of the large amount of effort we put in it. I learned user interface design from scratch. The finished product was neat and user-friendly. Even though we stopped the development after winning the Technovation, it was still worth the effort. It inspired other girls to participate in these types of competitions and study computer science and engineering. We were able to prove that everything is in your hands, and nothing is impossible.”