Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Climate Action Hackathon Connects Innovation, Ideas, People and Technology

Climate Action Hackathon

Hackathon Works To Provide Weather Information to Vulnerable Communities in Africa  
By Joost Hoedjes
Weather and climate information doesn’t reach Africa’s most vulnerable communities. There’s no weather channel, very limited early warning systems, and limited capacity in National Hydro-Meteorological Services (NHMS) to create rich targeted packages that could reach end-users.

In response to this problem, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) dedicated a multi-national conference in Livingstone, Zambia, (15-17 March 2016) to the subject of  “The Last Mile” – that is how we can package and share weather information to reach end-users. Experts from around the world came to present strategies on data packaging, communications and smart innovative ways to address this.

In a notable side event, UNDP partnered with the Brown Institute for Media Innovations – a bi-coastal collaboration between Stanford’s School of Engineering and Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism – and the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) to create a Hackathon.

The idea for this was born one cold spring night last year over dinner in an Irish pub in New York. As my UNDP colleagues and I were struggling with these very challenges, one thing was clear: innovative thinking would be needed to turn raw data into user-focused information products that could actually reach end users in a meaningful and impactful way. After the nth pint of Goodness, we figured we'd solved it. The Climate Action Hackathon. Let's get a group of talented developers in a room together, provide them with the type of data most NHMSs have, and see the ideas they come up with to this challenge. 

We had a total of 117 applications. There were applicants from across sub-Saharan Africa, from New York City, India, Turkey, Italy, China and Oxford. It was an amazingly ambitious and skilled pool of young talent. Africa’s challenges require home-grown solutions, and we were thrilled that so many Africans applied. In an industry regularly dominated by men, we also had a strong female contingent, meaning a diversity of perspectives, backgrounds, skills and interests. For the top 25 applicants, travel scholarships to Livingstone were offered by the UNDP Programme on Climate Information for Resilient Development in Africa (CIRDA).

The first challenge was to give them a crash course on meteorology, hydrology and the challenges National Met Services in Africa face. Country presentations gave the participants insights into the needs, roadblocks and challenges that NHMS encounter. Presentations from international experts, NHMS and practitioners showed them possible ways forward, as did a Project Brief we shared with participants on our Slack and Github developer platforms.

It’s not enough to just have a bunch of smart and energetic kids with a decent internet connection. They need data! Data experts and representatives from data providers, such as IRI, aWhere Weather, Earth Networks, UBIMET, GEONETCast and the Zambia Meteorological Department were on hand to answer the developers' questions. Crucially, most of these provided their APIs for the developers to use, giving them the kind of data and information a typical NHMS will have at its disposal. 

The developers, who were grouped into five teams, were given 27 hours to develop and present a prototype of their application. During these 27 hours, there was a lot of interaction between the developers and the data providers, practitioners and experts. All of the teams were still coding away long past midnight, and a number of developers continued through the night, working to meet the 11:30 deadline. 

See a live beta Extend Dashboard at
The skills, motivation and drive of the participants, resulted in five very useful, realistic and pragmatic applications. One app used simple design and processes to provide farmers with a call-in mobile app that provided real-time weather information voice messages in local languages.  Other applications included a visualization and risk-management app that agricultural extension workers could use to easily analyze weather data; a mapping app that African pastoralists could connect with to avoid hazards such as floods and wildfire; and a text app that would allow agricultural extension agents to register farmers to receive tailored texts on weather conditions.  

It's amazing to feel the kind of enthusiasm for weather and climate information services that we've experienced during the Hackathon. And even more amazing to realize that most of the applications that were developed can be implemented by NHMS. Although the on-site event has ended, the Climate Action Hackathon will continue online until the 1st of June. After that, together with our country partners, we will help put the best ideas into practice.

Reflections from the Hackers
“We were also surprised by the level of diversity in terms of skills and experience in our team, ranging from a coding expert, educator, GIS expert and business expert, to a climatologist as well as practitioner in climate change adaptation.” Teddy – Climar Team Member. The Climar Project is a climate information sharing platform that provides tailored advice to different sectors of the economy with recorded information in local languages. 

The Knife’s Edge (Extend)
“The UNDP CIRDA Hackathon was an incredibly enabling environment for developing tools for climate and weather. The hackathon was well organized in terms of both the logistics and providing the relevant datasets and expert access, and it was great meeting and learning from the different stakeholders involved with the challenges described at the conference.” – Madi-Jimba Yahya, Knife’s Edge Team Member. The Knife’s Edge Team Extend Project worked to improve climate and weather information transfer to Agricultural Extension Officers in order to improve decision making by farmers.
Symbolic text tells you when to water.

Climate Frame
“ClimateFrame is a framework that allows local experts to frame data by defining specific actions that are executed when certain events occur within real time data.” Climate Frame Team Member, Naomi Pentrel. Climate Frame also worked with Extension Officers, adding a simple text message that would allow illiterate farmers to know when to plant and water via symbolic text messages sent over SMS. 

The Farmers’ Guide Project
“Due to the changing climatic conditions, there has been a shift in the planting seasons and weather patterns. This has rendered traditional methods of estimating start of season untenable. This has caused farmers, sometimes, to miss out on planting seasons.” – Elvis Bando, Farmers Guide Team Member. This project works to provide farmers with improved information on when to plant and how to maximize profits and productivity.

The GitHub backend allows hackers to connect across the globe.
The #mLisho Project
“Nomadic pastoral systems are intrinsically able to adapt to fluctuating and extreme climates provided they have prior sufficient information to guide their movements in search of better grazing grounds for their livestock. Lack of information has led to a loss of livestock and - substantial changes to the social system of the nomadic pastoralist.”  Robert Ouko, mLisho Team Member. The mLisho Project created a basic early warning system platform that uses a mobile phone SMS API to send sustainability and market information to nomadic pastoralists based on predictions of range land productivity and market studies.


Joost Hoedjes is a Country Support Specialist on Hydrology for UNDP’s Programme on Climate Information for Resilient Development in Africa (CIRDA), which supports Climate Information and Early-Warning Systems Projects in 11 of Africa’s Least Developed Countries in their missions to save lives and improve livelihoods.

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