Oslo Hackathon explores new technology to empower women in humanitarian crisis

Date: 13 June 2017

Hackers learning about the situation for women and girls in crisis from Guro Katharina Vikør, Senior Advisor of the Humanitarian Section, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway. Photo: UN Women
Hackers learning about the situation for women and girls in crisis from Guro Katharina Vikør, Senior Advisor of the Humanitarian Section, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway. Photo: UN Women

Imagine waking up one day and realizing that the place you’ve called home all your life, is no longer safe. As millions of refugees and displaced people set out to find a new life across and within borders, they lack some of the most basic services and infrastructure that make daily life possible.

Olivier Mukuta, a social innovator originally from the Congo, knows such challenges intimately, having spent 12 years in a refugee camp in Malawi, while fleeing the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mukuta and his team were among the winners at the first “blockchain hackathon”, co-organized by UN Women and Innovation Norway at the Katapult Future Fest in Oslo. The event brought together technology innovators to address day-to-day challenges faced by refugees and displaced persons. Blockchain is a technology that offers decentralized and secure online database, records and money transfer systems.

Muktua’s team developed ‘VIPI Cash’, an app that uses blockchain technology to enable secure money transfer among women entrepreneurs, so that they can have access and control over their own money, independent of the male members of their family. At the award ceremony, Oliver Mukuta said, “‘There is an African saying, ‘If you support a woman, you support a family’.” 

The event drew over 40 participants from around the world, and the winning teams—VIPI Cash, Digital Grab Bag and Diwala—presented their ideas and prototypes to hundreds of social investors and industry leaders in attendance. 

Crown Princess Mette-Marit, Mayor of Oslo Marianne Borgen, CEO of Innovation Norway, Anita Krohn Traaseth, and State Secretary MFA Marit Berger Røsland, with winning teams in Katapult Fest, Oslo. Photo: UN Women
Crown Princess Mette-Marit, Mayor of Oslo Marianne Borgen, CEO of Innovation Norway, Anita Krohn Traaseth, and State Secretary MFA Marit Berger Røsland, with winning teams in Katapult Fest, Oslo. Photo: UN Women

The Digital Grab Bag is an app that collects and records identification data of refugees and provides an easy verification process among peers. In times of crisis, as people are on the move, they often cannot carry their identification and credentials on their person. The app makes it easier to prove their identity in order to access jobs and services.

The Diwala team designed an app that assigns “Diwala tokens” with which women can buy and sell services, instead of using cash, or verify and endorse their skills. One of the team leads, Jon Ramwi, who is also running a local blockchain community in Oslo, is planning to further develop the Diwala prototype to assist women in humanitarian contexts.

“This hackathon gave us a chance to create feasible options for social startups to address humanitarian challenges,” said Ramwi. “Most of us will take this further, hopefully under a year.”

Caroline Rusten, Chief of Humanitarian Unit, UN Women, announcing winners of the blockchain hackathon. Photo: UN Women
Caroline Rusten, Chief of Humanitarian Unit, UN Women, announcing winners of the blockchain hackathon. Photo: UN Women

For the three winning teams, as well as the other participating teams with innovative ideas, the hackathon has opened potential investment opportunities. For example, VIPI Cash has already secured support from a leading Swedish company for branding and business development of their prototype. 

The hackathon provided a unique opportunity for technological innovators and humanitarian workers to come together and build technology-driven solutions to complex humanitarian problems, aligned with the commitment made by UN Women and Innovation Norway earlier this year. Senior officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Norway, Innovation Norway, the Norwegian Refugee Council and UN Women served as mentors and judges at the hackathon.

“The average length of displacement is 25 years,” explains Caroline Rusten, Chief of UN Women Humanitarian Unit. “We need solutions for the immediate challenges, as well as for the long-term challenges faced by displaced women and refugees. And we need to embrace new technology to find more effective ways of doing things. For example, with technology like this, we can make sure that cash transfers reach the target groups. Proof of identity is a massive challenge for people on the move and for the governments receiving them, and as we saw, through blockchain technology, we can solve this problem.” 

“We believe that technology and innovation are central tools to reach the global sustainability goals in general, and the gender goal in particular,” said Ingvild von Krogh Strand, Senior Advisor at Innovation Norway. “It is truly inspiring to work with an organization that dares to challenge the existing, use new innovative approaches and engage inspirational individuals and companies to reach smarter solutions for the humanitarian context.” 

The hackathon served as the beginning of new partnerships with innovators, social entrepreneurs and business leaders. In the following months, UN Women plans to identify and pilot a blockchain solution to empower women in humanitarian context, with the support of Innovation Norway.

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