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THE HAJJ HACKATHON

Saudi Arabia holds many Guinness World Records, including the largest bottle of shampoo, the largest tea bag, the most school supplies donated in 24 hours and the biggest hydatid cyst removed from a patient. The kingdom set a record again last month for holding the largest hackathon ever.

The Saudi Federation for Cyber security, Programming and Drones teamed up last month with Google to launch the first “Hajj Hackathon” aimed at leveraging technology and innovation to improve the “hajj” – the pilgrimage to Mecca. The competition focused on improving services such as food and beverages, public health, waste management, financial services, transportation, accommodation, communications and crowd management for the estimated two million pilgrims who travel to Saudi Arabia on pilgrimage each year. The three-day event held at the International Exhibition and Convention Center in the Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah was the largest hackathon competition held to date in the Middle East attracting around 3,000 participants from all over the world who made up over 700 teams.

“This event is one of the most important things for a country that has great ambition to become the gateway to technology in the Middle East,” Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said, during the event’s opening ceremony. Steve Wozniak, Apple’s co-founder, said success was not about imitating others but about innovation and the creation and development of ideas.“For private enterprise to succeed, you have to work hard and you must love what you do” he said.

On every table there were tangles of wires and computers belonging to programmers, business developers, software engineers and marketers. The goal was simple: pitch a technology solution to modernize hajj. Most of the participants did not sleep as they had less than 72 hours to design, code, and pitch their idea. The judges, who included Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales, Apple’s Steve Wozniak and Mike Butcher from Tech Crunch, began assessing the ideas in a series of two-minute pitches. Each pitch was rated on four criteria: design, simplicity, creativity and impact. The top ten teams were given the opportunity to further explain their ideas and from those, three were selected for equity funding. However, as one of the judges pointed out, anyone who made it to the top ten would be almost certain to get worldwide attention.

Opportunities to improve the experience of pilgrimage exist at almost every step of the way– from the moment a person anywhere in the world decides to perform hajj to the farewell “tawaf”- the final step of hajj when pilgrims circle the kaabah seven times. Although crowd management appeared to be a challenge many teams were looking to address, some decided to shift their focus in order to stand out from the crowd. Sultanah Alshammari, a PhD candidate writing her dissertation on the spread of disease in large gatherings of people chose instead to focus on financial solutions “People from around the world come here with their currency, trying to convert it” she said“Then they need to know what to buy, where to buy it, and at what cost. All these are their concerns” she said. Her team was working on developing a smart payment system, either through an app or a plastic credit card, that catered to pilgrims from 170 different countries “A lot of the people coming to perform hajj are spending their lifetime savings or they are from low-income families” she noted“We want to pro – vide them with ways to save money and to spend it wisely”.

The overall winner was a Saudi based all-women team called Turjuman which means “translator”. Their idea was a simple and intuitive one- to in – stall QR codes on all signage which shows the translated version of the sign in the native language of the us – er’s phone. Considering that hajj at – tracts people from all over the world who speak multiple languages, this could solve an issue for people who don’t speak or read Arabic. The prize was a million Saudi riyals ($266,666) for 15 percent equity in their company.

The second place went to Hajj Wallet who addressed the problem of people losing their cash when ATMs simply stop working. Hajj Wallet al – lows pilgrims to deposit cash or money from their Visa card and then use the application to transfer money or pay for goods and services through QR readers. Hajj Wallet won 500,000 Saudi riyals ($133,333) for a 10 per – cent equity investment.

The third place was taken by a team from Algeria who proposed an app that automatically maps a pilgrim’s location, takes their picture and shares it with others. The app can also learn about a person’s face and if that person is spotted in someone else’s picture, can also notify the family. For privacy reasons, this feature only works if the person who originally took the picture publicly shares it. The team won 350,000 Saudi riyals ($93,333) for 7 percent equity in the company.