The Humanitarian Innovation Initiative, or HI2, will host its first ever Hack for Humanity, an event for students to collaborate and create new ideas and technologies that address humanitarian crises around the world. The hackathon — open to students from the University, the Rhode Island School of Design, the University of Rhode Island and the Naval War College — is hosted by the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs and will take place March 17 and 18.
The hackathon will center on the ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis, and teams will specifically address issues such as malnutrition, sanitation in refugee camps and education for displaced children. The teams will be advised by an expert in one of the five available topics they choose to address. A panel of judges will award three $500 grants to the teams whose ideas deserve further funding, said Priyanka Shetty ’19, president of the student executive board for Hack for Humanity.
HI2 has partnered with other University organizations such as the Brown Design Workshop, the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship, the Swearer Center for Public Service and others in order to promote a more interdisciplinary approach to addressing the focus issues. “Humanitarian assistance is an incredibly multidisciplinary field, and the goal is for the hackathon to bring together a diverse group of students with a diversity of perspectives,” wrote Program Coordinator for HI2 Seth Stulen in an email to The Herald. HI2 has also partnered with outside groups such as Edesia Nutrition, a nonprofit company that has provided ready-to-use foods to over 5.5 million children in 50 countries since 2010, according to the company’s website.
HI2 hopes to use the hackathon to connect a variety of student perspectives with professionals working on humanitarian issues.
“We’re recruiting students from all different areas,” including policy, international relations, the sciences, computer science and design, Shetty said, emphasizing that HI2 is determined to recruit more students. HI2 “wanted much more direct student involvement with the humanitarian sphere and to bring their ideas to fruition,” she said.
Shetty also noted the lack of connections between the world of academia and the realities of humanitarian fieldwork. “You either do research here or you go do an internship abroad. Any kind of awareness campaign has its limits because there’s still a very big gap between what you’re doing here and what you’re trying to address,” Shetty said. The hackathon “gives you a chance to actually come out of it with a … real idea. I think it’s a unique way for students to really be able to address the issues more intimately.”
Maria Kasparian ’05, executive director of Edesia Nutrition and mentor for the team covering malnutrition, said she hopes the students “can offer some fresh perspective … on some of the challenges we … face on a regular basis.”
As a mentor, Kasparian will help the team tackle the various issues related to shipping food to areas in need. Malnutrition leads to “poorer health, illness (and) even chronic disease later in life — things that really impact families (and) communities, as well as countries and whole economies,” Kasparian said. She has spent time in Bangladesh, where Rohingya refugees have fled to escape the violence in Myanmar.“I think I can offer some of the field perspective … in terms of what it’s like,” she said.
Rob Grace GS, an affiliated fellow with HI2, will mentor the group trying to overcome the ways in which humanitarian support is obstructed by groups or governments. “Humanitarian actors have to grapple with securing that humanitarian space so they can operate independent of political forces,” Grace said. Like Kasparian, he will help the group develop new ideas by providing “the framework for the key challenges and dilemmas humanitarian actors are going to be facing in this context,” Grace said. “My hope is that the groups working on this issue can find some creativity within those constraints, (so) that they can think about novel and new ways to grapple with these challenges.”
Ultimately, HI2 hopes that students will come away from the event with new perspectives on the complex nature of humanitarian work. “To achieve this, we need to rethink the role that everyday citizens can play in the delivery of humanitarian assistance and, for us here at Brown, this starts with reimagining how we train students to become engaged in critical thinking about humanitarian issues,” Stulen wrote.