Innovation and new ideas originate from many sources, and especially during times of crisis.  Communities around the world are asking how they can lend a digital hand. This is wonderful. National Societies are engaged in hackathons for the COVID-19 response.  Over the coming days and weeks there will be more hackathons, so we are sharing some Movement examples and some lessons.  


What is a hackathon  

A hackathon is a time-based event that brings people together to work in small teams to deliver prototypes/ideas. Teams are comprised of product/project/idea owners, software developers, designers, writers, and other technical staff. You don’t have to be a techie to contribute. However, there is a learning curve and time commitment to get start collaborating.


For the COVID-19 emergency 

Partnering with social entrepreneurs and businesses, the Egyptian Red Crescent designed three key challenges – logistics and transportation, behaviour change, and cash assistance. The challenges and delivery are designed to solve a problem in an innovative way guided by the principles of fresh perspective, scalability, impact and timescales. Other National Societies are exploring joining hackathons in their countries. There are also some global hackathons such as the Global Hack held on April 19 – 12, 2020. 

There have been previous hackathon activities among various national societies. The most recent examples include – health and mobile data tools as well as operational data flows. The Norwegian Red Cross/Belgian Red Cross/Senegal Red Cross and IFRC collaborate on the health project called Community-based Surveillance or Nyss. (  This is an ongoing project that is being done with partners and local communities. The health experts work along the software developers and local community volunteers to improve the tool. They just launched the platform in February 2020. We consider this a best practice to “build with” and solve a problem with communities and partners. IFRC has also participated in the CERN hackathon for DEEP – this is a machine learning tool to review the influx of data and information sources. The network of partners building this continue to explore how to use this for operational decision-making. (  


How to get started

First – the best way to learn about a hackathon or a codeathon is to be a participant or an observer. Most of the events are designed to enable all types of skillsets. As humanitarians you have much to offer in terms of ‘problems to be solved’ or ‘guidance on how ideas might support humanitarian action.


What to consider when submitting an ‘idea’   

Many hands and eyes can make light. Be sure to define a problem into manageable parts with a context. If you are the ‘idea or project owner’, you and your team should be available throughout the event to ‘mentor’ and guide the idea.   

This article might assist in those considerations  

The best hackathons are really multi-stages projects that lead to some sustainable plan. The risk of not doing this is unused software, which might leave the participants and wider community wondering if the event achieved its outcomes. This can be addressed with messaging and/or programming. One way to do this is to build the ecosystem in which partners can continue to mentor, especially if the project becomes a startup or a collective project.    


Some alternative views on hackathons.   

When getting involved in a hackathon, it is possible that the solution might not solve a problem. Or, it might not fit humanitarian values. By being a great project mentor and project participant, you can help guide the collective good will to innovate without causing harm. Consider these spaces to be ‘ideation’ and ‘prototypes’ for future plans. Most of all have fun and do tell us how it went.   


Alternative views: 


Have you held a hackathon recently? We want to hear from you, tell us about it in the comments below.


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Heather Leson
Policy, Strategy and Knowledge – IFRC
July 5, 2020