Innovation for Children in the Urban World Hackathon

Fostering urban tech solutions for urban challenges at Astana EXPO 2017

Aizhan Altaibek, and winning team, InSaAi
Children play in a UNICEF supported 'Rodnik' shelter for child trafficking victims in the city of Almaty, Kazakhstan.
UNICEF/Giacomo Pirozzi
15 September 2017

UNICEF in Kazakhstan together with the International IT University have held three hackathons to inspire young programmers to come up with solutions to issues specific to children. The UNICEF Innovations lab director in Almaty, Aizhan Altaibek, and winning team, Insaai, share their thoughts on the third hackathon that took place on 18 August 2017 at the international specialized exhibition “Astana EXPO-2017″.

UNICEF Innovation Hackathon
UNICEF Innovation

Behind the scenes: Meet Aizhan Altaibek

I’m Aizhan and I have been the head of UNICEF Innovations lab for six months. Six eventful, challenging and busy months. So far, we’ve held two hackathons, one five-week summer residency program, and numerous guest lectures and offsite events. All for the pursuit of finding new ways to accelerate results for children.

Participants working hard on their computers at the Hackathon
UNICEF Innovation

Over forty applications, 10 cities in Kazakhstan, about a hundred eager young people – this was the beginning of our third hackathon, which was different from the previous two in so many ways. We’ve spent two full months preparing for this hackathon – choosing hackathon participants, mentoring, prepping teams, arranging flights, accommodation, and going through the logistics of the day over and over again.

Our third hackathon also took place at an international specialized exhibition – which has also been one of the most talked about events in Kazakhstan called Astana EXPO-2017. This enabled us to join global discussions around future energy and sustainability – making our hackathon relevant and important.  We’ve also invited international guests like UNICEF Ventures lead Chris Fabian, Project Connect CEO Sara Jacobs, and regional manager, Hector Mujica to join our panel of judges. I notice that having this diversity in our panel brought more excitement to our participants – they were engaged, animated, and challenged as they presented their ideas during the official pitching day.

Here are some of the prototypes presented:


  • SmartAir – a portable air quality measuring device created by our youngest summer residency alum (13 years old) who spends his spare time teaching programming to young girls and taking things apart, and coming up with his own hardware.
  • Qaz3D Alippe – a mobile app and a book that use augmented reality to teach children Kazakh, train memory and increase interest in reading. The creators are also residency alums.
  • UKB – a sensor that detects gas leaks and sends alarm through mobile phone
  • QamCare – a safety app with hardware (an emergency button) enabling to send SOS signal to trusted contacts when needed. User can turn on the app when walking in unsafe areas alone or hailing a cab at night. The creators took grand prize at Google’s global technovation challenge in San Francisco.


Team presents SmartAir application at the Hackathon
Alisher Aitzhan
Team presents SmartAir application at UNICEF Hackathon “Innovating for children in an urban world."

After 24 hours, and numerous debates, our judges finally chose the winning team: The Insaai team with their mobile game app in ethno-style. Insaai was also the only team which is not from either Almaty or Astana but from a small town in north Kazakhstan – Kokshetau. I sensed that everyone in the room was happy and cheering for the team – it is evident that their idea and prototype was a good fit and showed great potential.  A nice addition was also finding out that the people behind Insaai (she: an artist/designer and he: a programmer) were getting married in October.

Judges listen to teams pitching their prototypes at UNICEF Hackathon “Innovating for children in an urban world.”
Alisher Aitzhan
Judges listen to teams pitching their prototypes at UNICEF Hackathon “Innovating for children in an urban world.”

Looking around the room, relieved that the hackathon is over, I take a moment to think about what just happened. I realize how important such events are to inspiring young people and thus developing the innovation potential of the country. It is also a great way for us to take stock of where our programmers are at the moment – what are their strengths and weaknesses. Finally, by bringing together participants we foster new partnerships, and new friendships.


In the spotlight: Meet Team InSaAi

We’re “InSaAi”, winner of the UNICEF-organized hackathon “Innovating for children in an urban world”. We’re here to share our story and give more information around the application we developed. “Qadam” is a mobile game for children in ethno-style available in three languages (English, Russian and Kazakh).

Winning the UNICEF hackathon was a big surprise to us. We were the only team that was not from one of the two innovation hubs in Kazakhstan – Almaty or Astana. We are from a small town in northern Kazakhstan – Kokshetau.

Our team is called InSaAi which stands for Innovation, Samat, Aigerim. InSaAi is three years old but we have known each other for over five years. Of these five years, we have been together as a couple for four and a half years.

Hackathon winners announced, team InSaAi takes home top prize.
Alisher Aitzhan
Hackathon winners announced, team InSaAi takes home top prize.

You probably are wondering: where it all started? We met in college where Samat was actively involved in student activities. He was akin to a local celebrity – an actor, a singer and the head of the Alliance of students of Kazakhstan.  We became a couple thanks to a faded pink notepad (I’m a designer and if Samat had written me sweet nothings on a hot pink notepad, our romance would have been doomed). Later on,Samat graduated from college and worked at a state firm as an IT specialist. However, installing anti-virus and rebooting people’s computers was not his dream job. What pushed him to  entrepreneurship, however, was once again our love. Every lunch break we would spend together and very soon we realized that working apart was not an option. Because I had a degree in design and Samat –  in IT, the idea to develop mobile applications came to us rather naturally. We spent many hours on Youtube, teaching ourselves how to create applications. But it was not until Samat’s baby sister asked to find a game in Kazakh that the idea to develop “Qadam” was born. Qadam means “first step” in Kazakh.

Aigerim and Samat, team InSaAi, through an interpreter discuss their project with UNICEF data science researcher Naroa Zurutuza.
Ragimkhan Osmanov
Aigerim and Samat, team InSaAi, through an interpreter discuss their project with UNICEF data science researcher Naroa Zurutuza.

In Kazakhstan, there is still a shortage of quality educational and entertaining material in our native language and Qadam aims to  fill that gap.  Our application has already been downloaded 15,000 times and not only in Kazakhstan.

We also believe that our success has to do with the ethnic style design. We have gone through eight versions of the design until we finally found the kind of design that could showcase our traditional style in a contemporary way.

Through joining this hackathon –  we’ve received so much support from our international guests and judges. Take for example, Chris Fabian, UNICEF Ventures lead and his team from New York, who sat down with us to go over the project. While he pointed out where we could improve, he was extremely supportive of preserving our design and demonstrated sincere interest in learning about Kazakh culture and traditions. Chris shared some useful tips on marketing our app and we have already began exploring new partnerships.

UNICEF's Chris Fabian and Fiachra McAsey speak with hackathon participants.
Alisher Aitzhan
UNICEF's Chris Fabian and Fiachra McAsey speak with hackathon participants.

We have been at several hackathons this year and by far this was the best. We are not saying it was because we won, or because we are sharing our story with the hackathon organizers. There were a few things that set this hackathon apart from the rest:

  • Children – we had not fully realized the link between innovation and children’s rights. After the Hackathon, we were happy to take part in UNICEF Talks where we learned shocking facts about the needs of children in the world. At the same time we were excited to be part of a global movement that uses innovation to help children.
  • International participants – having the opportunity to interact with international experts is still rather rare. It was useful to present our project in English (and with the help of UNICEF staff) and to get new perspectives. We felt immensely inspired after UNICEF Talks speaker David Gersten, professor from the Cooper Union, a well known artist and architect, gave his opinion on the future of our product.
  • Organization – the overall organization and logistics were perfectly organized. It might seem like a trivial comment but speaking from our experience we must say that for the first time we could relax and focus on our solution.



UNICEF Innovation Lab: The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Kazakhstan opened UNICEF Innovation Lab in the International IT University in Almaty in March 2017. The goal of the lab is to foster development and integration of information technology solutions to improve the quality of life of children. The innovation lab is open to students from different universities and professionals from various backgrounds. Successful products developed through the lab can also apply for start-up venture capital funding through UNICEF’s Innovation Fund.

Third hackathon: UNICEF Hackathon “Innovating for Children in an Urban World” took place on 18 August at Astana EXPO-2017. Fourteen teams offered prototype solutions to specific challenges experienced by children growing up in cities – ranging from tackling air pollution and improving safety to ensuring accessible transport and streets for children.

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