Zain Innovation Campus in Amman, Jordan

A team of innovators, a UNICEF staff member, and an NGO walk into a hackathon...

Emma Ohana, Office of Innovation, UNICEF
Hala Abu Ghoush draws and colours with two children in the Za’atari camp for Syrian refugees, in Mafraq Governorate, near the Syrian border.
15 December 2016

The room was abuzz with flipcharts and chatter. Participants clutched markers, iPhones and mugs of coffee, as ideas flowed freely at the Zain Innovation Campus in Amman, Jordan.

A veritable smorgasbord of software developers, designers, and entrepreneurs of all ages, turned out in impressive numbers (over 100) to test their smarts, and stamina, in a 52-hour-long ‘Startup Weekend’ Hackathon. The goal? To generate innovative business ideas and solutions to address both global and local challenges.

The weekend, run by Startup Weekend in partnership with Techfugees (an NGO based out of the UK who coordinates the tech community’s response to the refugee crisis) offered a “refugee track” category as part of the Hackathon. The refugee track invited participants to pitch innovative tech ideas to help the millions of refugees around the world who have been forced to flee their homes. UNICEF Jordan was there to support and mentor the teams to perfect their product and pitch.

“UNICEF Jordan really appreciates the opportunity to work with Techfugees and be part of the startup weekend. We think it’s a great opportunity for the incredible talent that exists here in Jordan, amongst youth, to become engaged, to promote their innovate ideas and provide a platform for them to take these ideas forward,” 

Rob Jenkins, UNICEF Representative, Jordan
Participants at the Zain Innovation Campus in Amman, Jordan.
Participants at the Zain Innovation Campus in Amman, Jordan.

“Our mission is to inspire and educate entrepreneurs. We don’t want them to be job takers, we want them to be job creators."

And on the unique nature of this event: “They are of course allowed a little bit of sleep.”

Batoul Ibrahim, 26, Startup Weekend facilitator

Mohammed Al Afranji, 30, from Gaza, was at the event and keen to share ideas with his peers at home. “These kind of events can help entrepreneurs in Gaza as well, including youth” he said.  “They can see ideas and we can give them motivation.”

A quick tour of the room and I was already gripped by the energy. This group of young entrepreneurs would not disappoint.

From Let’s Play, a new social media platform for engineers to Colour Blind, a tool to support those who are unable to distinguish between colors, I was blown away by the creativity and innovative mindsets.

The hackathon also had a category to create solutions focused on helping refugees. From Refu Games, an idea to stream crowdsourcing videos to refugees talking about practical solutions to solve problems to building a database for refugees – making it easier for those forced from their homes to search useful information, from services to legal rights.

"It’s taken from an idea already done in Germany. I wanted to help because in Jordan and in Germany there are so many refugees.” 

Mohammed Hamdan, 24

“Almost anywhere in the world, when you pick up a newspaper, you will see a story about refugees.  Most of those stories will be negative. In addition, all over the world, government officials are making decisions that impact the lives of refugees. The voices of refugees are rarely heard in these conversations. Too often, they do not have the opportunity to tell their own stories, nor the pathway to provide their perspective on the issues that impact their lives. How can we use technology to amplify and elevate the voices of refugee children?  How can we make sure that those stories and perspectives are heard?”

Eva Kaplan, UNICEF Jordan innovation specialist

The winner of this category, ProFugees, was a smart, crowd-funding platform to capture and amplify the personal stories of refugees. The winning team was awarded three months of weekly coaching and mentoring to further develop the concept.

All round, it was an impressive demonstration of thinking and problem-solving.

Just when I thought every idea had been imagined, I careened into Caring, an idea to create a black box for every car.  It was from the beaming Jawad, 19, son of a car dealer, who said he came up with the idea after he had crashed three cars.  Thankfully no one was hurt, but the police never caught him. “Every time it was my fault,” he said apologetically, noting that his innovation would provide the police with the evidence needed to catch people like himself.

I left the King Hussein Business park that evening feeling a bit more cautious about getting behind the wheel, but mainly truly optimistic from seeing what these young entrepreneurs came up with in such a short period of time. In just 52 hours, I’d been exposed to great ideas that I believe can lead to better opportunities and a brighter future for some of the most disadvantaged children in the world today.