NEW DELHI, Apr 20: In one of the first-ever hackathons of its kind, many of India’s top young technology thinkers came together this past weekend for PolicyHack, a 30-hour event in New Delhi, to work through real-world challenges posed by government agencies and non-profit organisations. 24 teams of developers, software engineers, coders and front-end design specialists from across the country competed in five different “policy tracks” to create new tools to improve the delivery of government services to the people of India.
The grand prize went to a team of four developers in the Clean Water for All in Delhi track. They designed a monitoring device that can be placed inside of a water tanker to track not only the water level inside the tank, but match that level with the GPS location of the vehicle and report that information back to the government in real-time. These devices are affordable (estimated to cost less than Rs. 4,000 each, or $65 USD) and can help the government understand and solve two problems simultaneously: leaking water tankers and corruption via the “water mafia.”
Winning projects from other tracks included an app to check the authenticity of products by taking snapshots, a web portal customisable to different government ministries that facilitates dialogue with the public, and a system that gives access to school evaluations through the web or telephone via interactive voice response.
For all of the tracks, teams of developers were given 36 hours to envision, design, develop and present their solution to a panel of four judges from the fields of government, academia, technology and journalism. Needless to say, there was not much sleep to be had!
“Often, the problems policymakers face are in implementation of a program, not just policy design. Solutions that can tackle both the design and implementation challenges that governments and non-profits face do not always lie in the halls of government buildings,” said Rohini Pande, one of four judges for the event and Faculty Co-Director of Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD), a research program based at the Harvard Kennedy School, and PolicyHack host.
“The creative approaches and innovative solutions that participants came up with showed for me how much potential there is here in India not just to design the next trendy app, but also to offer potential solutions for some very real and seemingly intractable problems that our society faces. The key now is to test these possible solutions rigorously and implement the successes”, she added.
Sundeep Narwani, a Coordinator with the Delhi Dialogue Commission who attended the event and helped mentor all of the water track teams was thrilled at the solutions developed at PolicyHack. “All the prototypes were usable. Everyone had something to show,” he said. “The other good news is that all of these guys [both the winning team as well as the second and third place teams in the water track] have been invited to come meet with the concerned government officers to make their pitch.” Narwani continued, “This is what open democratic government is meant to be. Many kids come up being cynical about government because of the many problems they see. What if they can be empowered to actually solve the problem? I think many of the participants today realised how important it is for young people to get involved.”
The winning team will now have the opportunity to work with EPoD officers in Delhi to further develop and refine their application. They will then fly to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA to obtain further advice and support from policy experts. Finally, they will return to India to present their final product to the Government of Delhi.
“It was a great opportunity for us to build a solution that would socially impact the large population of Delhi and help the Government,” said Ishan Khanna, a member of the winning team, via email. “We want to get our product from prototype to production as soon as possible.” Teammate Samarth Bansal elaborated further, saying “Indians are always talking about poor governance and mistrust in our political system. But I can say that a lot of young people are actually excited about being a part of the solution, [rather] than just cribbing about it… And the fact that the [government] departments partnered as mentors was really encouraging.”
The judges, who included Rohini Pande, Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, Santhosh Mathew, Joint Secretary, [IT/Skills Division] Ministry of Rural Development, Rukmini Shrinivasan, National Data Editor for The Hindu, and Ajey Gore, Founder of Codelgnition, who spoke at length about the virtue of integrating higher quality data and better data tools into the world of policymaking and implementation. Indeed, Mathew invited interested participants to intern with the Ministry of Rural Development to see the ways in which policies are made and programs are run. He also expressed interest in using some of the tools developed at the event.
MORE on PolicyHack: BWSC spoke to Dr Charity Troyer Moore, India Director, Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD) PolicyHack See the interview here