More than a hackathon: supporting assistive technology solutions in Somalia
It is estimated that 15–20 per cent of Somalia’s population are living with disabilities. That’s as many as 2.5 to 3 million people facing significant barriers in terms of access to education, employment, political representation, and other forms of participation. Security incidents and Covid-19 are of particular concern, not least because persons with disabilities have difficulty accessing timely information.
Exacerbating all this is poor access to assistive devices and technologies, whether due to their unavailability in Somalia, prohibitive cost, or inadequacy in the Somali context (e.g. not adapted or available in Somali language, not suitable for use on unpaved or poorly mapped streets, etc.)
In December 2021, UNDP Somalia’s Accelerator Lab launched “Tech Empowered,” an open innovation challenge to source assistive technology solutions, in partnership with SIMAD University’s iLab (a hub for innovation, technology and entrepreneurship education in Somalia), the National Disability Agency, the Abeer Foundation for children with disabilities, and Premier Bank. During a five-day bootcamp, 45 young innovators developed human-centered solutions, ranging from an app connecting people with visual impairments to sighted volunteers, to a set of gadgets supporting wheelchair users with everyday challenges (weather protection, desk, and more). Recognising the need to go beyond ideation, we designed the challenge such that the most viable ideas emerging from the “hackathon” will be provided incubation support from UNDP and SIMAD iLab as well as seed funding from Premier Bank.
In this blog, we share our insights from this experience.
1. Start with (and iterate on) the problem statement
A common challenge with hackathons is that participants invariably arrive with a limited understanding of the problem and/or a fixed solution already in mind. Oftentimes, understanding is based on anecdotal or personal experience or solutions that are inspired or borrowed from abroad. None of this is necessarily an issue, as long as sufficient thought and research has gone into the specific challenges in the local context. In view of the lack of data on disabilities in Somalia, this is not always easy to do.
One of the teams arrived to the bootcamp with an idea for a smart power socket that would prevent injury to people with visual impairments. A potentially interesting solution for various target groups and uses, but in the absence of evidence about this actually being a problem for people with visual impairments, the team ultimately decided to pursue a different idea.
Of course, while problem definition is crucial at the outset, it is also a continual, iterative process that participants returned to throughout, and particularly while interviewing their target users and prototyping their solutions.
2. Design by and with persons with disabilities
It is not enough to encourage persons with disabilities to apply to hackathons, or to any training programmes for that matter. Fully accessible information, application forms, and venues are the minimum; more dedicated and hands-on outreach and support are also needed.
We were fortunate to be joined by a number of speakers who candidly shared their experiences living with disability. As we look to replicate the hackathon in other parts of Somalia, we will also look at crowdsourcing specific challenges from persons with disabilities directly.
3. Higher tech doesn’t = more innovative
What do we look for in an “innovative” solution? Arguably, it is one that a) addresses a gap in the market, b) is human centered in its problem articulation and design and c) is therefore relevant to the local context. While AI-powered smart glasses could revolutionize the daily life of those with visual impairments by helping them identify their surroundings, starting with a Somali text-to-speech app is arguably more viable in the Somali context. Similarly, an affordable, locally made wheelchair tray or a breastfeeding cushion for disabled mothers could be life-changing for many based on the participants’ research.
4. All types of disability can benefit from assistive technologies
Assistive tech is often designed primarily for physical, visual and hearing disabilities. Mental, intellectual and psychosocial disabilities are neglected in literature and research, but also in the development of solutions. There is a dearth of mental health resources available in Somali language and reflective of Somali cultural and religious practices, which one of the hackathon teams has set out to remedy with the creation of an app dedicated to making such resources more easily accessible. It is a good example of a solution that can serve multiple forms of disability, families of persons with disabilities, and ultimately anybody in need of mental health support.
5. Assistive tech can enhance inclusion and exclusion at the same time
Assistive devices and technologies are intended to enhance inclusion of people with disabilities, but it’s important to remember that they are also subject to digital divides. While an app is accessible to many more people than an expensive, high-tech product, it still requires a smartphone. Digital divides are typically exacerbated where multiple forms of exclusion overlap — an older disabled woman in a rural area can be expected to have much different needs and access compared to a young disabled man in Mogadishu. Finding ways to reach more marginalised groups, for instance by partnering with intermediaries (e.g. NGOs operating in rural areas) is important.
6. A hackathon is only the beginning
The hard work of turning great ideas into viable start-ups starts after a hackathon. The majority of hackathons end with prize money for the best ideas, without any follow-up mentorship or incubation support. This ignores the fact that some participants sign up to hackathons for the learning and networking experience (perfectly valid motivations) or are placed into teams artificially without regard to the strong interpersonal dynamics required to run a start-up.
With this in mind, we designed a support system for Tech Empowered, building in follow-on technical and financial support for promising ideas/teams. Having given the teams time to refine their ideas and team composition, only those dedicated to continue will go on to receive incubation support in the next months.
Stay tuned as we work on bringing these ideas to market — and get in touch if you’d like to support with mentorship or funding!