This was just one question that Silicon Valley experts and Stanford students began to answer on May 14 at the Cloud to Street Hackathon for Egypt.
Held at the d.school, The Hackathon was inspired by the Liberation Technology program led by professors Larry Diamond, Terry Winograd, and Joshua Cohen. The Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, the Peace Innovation Lab, and the student group Code the Change worked together to make it happen.
The Cloud to Street team, which visited Cairo in March and April, provided empathy work and ideas. Led by Stanford’s Ben Rowswell, a former Canadian diplomat in Egypt, Cloud to Street has been documenting the ingenious ways that Egypt’s activists have been combining technology and political activism at www.cloudtostreet.org.
The opportunity to offer tangible help to the democratic transition in Egypt proved enticing enough to draw some 75 volunteers out for the Hackathon. These included computer programmers, web designers and social scientists both from Stanford and Silicon Valley, as well as a number of Egyptian activists that joined in via videoconference.
Two activists flew from Cairo so that hackers could meet the end-users for the tools being developed, and understand the environment in which they operate. One of them, Ahmed Salah had two words of advice for anyone developing IT tools for the democracy movement in Egypt: they need to be free (since most activists are unemployed) and they need to be secure (to prevent people like him from being thrown in prison).
The day’s hacking yielded three tangible prototypes for activists to use. In addition to the constitutional crowdsourcing platform, the Hackathon produced a web platform to allow interested citizens to train themselves to monitor the September 2011 Parliamentary elections. The third was an interactive tool to inform Egyptian citizens about candidates for that election, and once they are elected, to inform Parliamentarians of their concerns and rate them on their efforts to delivers.
Activists and hackers are now refining these tools, getting them ready in time for the coming elections. Egypt’s democrats face high hurdles in pulling off a successful transition, but the d.school Hackathon demonstrated they are not alone. The same digital tools they use to bring change to their country can be the source of assistance from supporters halfway across the world.
Image: Egyptian activist Sabah Hamamou | Photo Credit: Alex Mayyasi