Hackathons for humanity, or for technology? by@carolune

Hackathons for humanity, or for technology?

Carolina Ödman-Govender HackerNoon profile picture

Carolina Ödman-Govender

Us technology geeks can be blinded by the fun and awesomeness of technology, but sometimes we can take it for granted and it can frankly be inappropriate, particularly when we try to solve problems of people who are not technology geeks.

Last weekend an Early Childhood Development (ECD) Hackathon was organised in Cape Town, and boy was I ready to go, even if it meant bringing my own small child along with a babysitter! Between my two small children experience and love for technology, this was right up my alley! I had roped in a couple of awesome friends with skills including ECD, science, education, coding, monitoring and evaluation, neuroscience and a good dose of enthusiasm to tackle the challenge of access to good nutrition, responsive care and stimulations through play for vulnerable children, as described in the pitch video for the hackathon (included here because it’s so good)

Then life happened, and I couldn’t go. My disappointment was immense, but I had to get over it and instead, I avidly followed the #ECDHack hashtag on twitter over the weekend, as I was otherwise occupied.

Then, the winner was announced. Crèche Connect — TripAdvisor for crèches. And my heart sank.

But why? Everyone in the room was pretty much unanimously in favour of them and they won by a long stretch. I have tried to educate myself about the project as much as I could, and I believe I’ve gotten the same amount of information as the judges when they chose it, since the pitch was filmed and made available publicly on Facebook (thank you for sharing — really!).

So the idea of TripAdvisor for creches. Why does that bother me so much? Firstly, a disclaimer: I think it’s a cool idea by itself, and by all means go for it. And I may not know everything about it, since I wasn’t at the event.

But I also think it completely defeats the point of the hackathon. Does it address the issue of access to good nutrition, responsive care and play for vulnerable children? I don’t think so. Let me explain.

  1. Parents giving feedback on whether they are happy about a crèche doesn’t help the crèche improve. It does not educate the crèche staff about nutrition, responsive care and play. It doesn’t give them a chance to grow better. There is no expert advice, no training, no path for improvement. Just a customer-type feedback mechanism. While there was some mention of a dialogue with communities, I’m not sure how that helps. A crèche is not a holiday destination. Some expert input is needed to help it grow! A crèche with 5 children or fewer doesn’t need to be registered in South Africa. For more, some regulations are in place but they specify that those standards are minimal.
  2. Who are the parents who really have a choice in which crèche to send their kids to? Not caregivers of the most vulnerable children, like domestic workers for example. While the technology problem (they may have a data-enabled phone but they won’t go to a website) was touched upon by mentioning USSD (what about Mxit?), concretely someone who leaves home at 4:30am to go to work and comes home at 9pm hardly has a chance to read up on things, let alone give feedback, or consider a choice of nearby crèches.
  3. TripAdvisor for crèches is ultimately a competitive system. And such competition has been shown to benefit only the wealthy. See for example this paper from the Institute for Fiscal Studies in the UK describing how a competitive system for schools only benefots the wealthy. The risk with this is that Crèche Connect will give those who already have a choice a platform to make a better informed choice instead of creating greater access, information, education of care givers and care for the children, especially the most vulnerable ones and improving the worst faring crèches.
  4. Like any product, there also needs to be a buy-in from the market. Not only parents, also crèches. And if our experience as parents is anything to go by, the buy-in from crèches will come only from those that get good ratings and advertise it proudly. My own little one’s crèche owner is always after ways to be seen/ranked as more fancy, possibly to be able to attract wealthier parents, higher fees, and climb the ladder of crèche rankings, etc. Crèches are commercial enterprises in many cases…

So while I am the first to believe in technology’s transformative powers, I also believe that we need to step outside our preconceptions, and get the very people who we are trying to ‘help’ (what a patronizing word, sometimes) to guide us as to how best we put all that shiny tech of ours to use to service their needs.

Technology needs to adapt to people, not the other way around. If we want technology to contribute to something, it needs to be invisible and ubiquitous. That’s the only way it’ll not create a group of haves and have-nots.

A stark warning is given in this report of the World Economic Forum and describes how:

“The available evidence presents a paradox where ICTs are driving economic growth and decreasing global inequality while, at the same time, contributing to rising within-country income inequality” — Dr. Robert Pepper

While I’m the biggest fan of the enthusiasm that such events generates and the collective generosity of all the participants and sponsors being genuinely concerned with vulnerable children’s development, unfortunately, I see Crèche Connect as a well-meaning but somehwat misinformed output. In other words, an example of potentially missing the target and ‘driving growth while contributing to rising in-country inequality’…

Having said all that, going for crèches is an excellent idea, because so many children spend so much time there, so it’s a great starting point, I fully acknowledge that.

I also acknowledge how much heart the team put into their project.

I just hope it goes the right way from here and becomes much more that ‘TripAdvisor for crèches’!…

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