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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 November 2018

Hajj Hackathon: Breaking records to improve the biggest annual pilgrimage

Some of the tech industry's brightest minds are gathering to improve one of the oldest pilgrimmages

Women attend a hackathon in Jeddah on July 31, 2018, prior to the start of the annual Hajj pilgrimage in the holy city of Mecca. More than 3,000 software developers and 18,000 computer and information-technology enthusiasts from more than 100 countries take part in Hajj hackathon in Jeddah until August 3. / AFP PHOTO / Amer HILABI
Women attend a hackathon in Jeddah on July 31, 2018, prior to the start of the annual Hajj pilgrimage in the holy city of Mecca. More than 3,000 software developers and 18,000 computer and information-technology enthusiasts from more than 100 countries take part in Hajj hackathon in Jeddah until August 3. / AFP PHOTO / Amer HILABI

Saudi Arabia holds many Guinness World Records, including the largest tea bag, the most school supplies donated in 24 hours, and the biggest hydatid cyst removed from a patient. And to add to that odd mix of achievements, the kingdom went down in the Guinness World Record books for holding the largest hackathon ever on Wednesday.

But unlike the other Saudi world records, such as the largest bottle of shampoo, which is also held by the Arab kingdom, the Hajj Hackathon is gathering 2,950 participants to help streamline the process for the largest annual pilgrimage in the world.

The event is offering cash prizes to the top three participants, amounting to two million Saudi riyals (Dh1.96m) to transform their ideas into application-based solutions.

Co-ordinating two million people to visit two sites and perform religious rituals at specific times over a span of a week is no easy task. To help them, they have asked the brightest minds in programming to come up with technological solutions to some of Hajj’s most pressing problems.

On every table in the hall in Jeddah, the Red Sea coastal city hosting the hackathon, participants say there are a tangle of wires and computers belonging to the programmers, business developers, software engineers and marketers from more than 40 different nations. They are all trying to solve one of the seven problem areas for those performing Hajj.

The goal is simple, if not open-ended: pitch a technological solution to modernize Hajj. That can include anything from developing code to streamlining the Hajj registration systems, to designing a wrist-watch that pilgrims can wear to monitor a slew of indicators, including their location for crowd management purposes and heart rate for disease detection.

“Crowd management, I think that is what most people are focusing on, to lower the friction between people, or to accelerate it,” said Abdelrahman Mahdy, a Google Developer Expert, “but all are important and we as judges are looking for the simplest and most innovative solution.”

Opportunities for the Hackathon exist in every step of the Hajj experience, from the moment when a person anywhere in the world decides to perform Hajj to the Farewell Tawaf – the final step of Hajj whereby pilgrims walk around the Kabah seven times reflecting on the thoughts and feelings they felt during the once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Most of the almost 3,000 participants have not slept, as they only have 72 hours to design, code, and pitch the idea.

As a mentor and judge, Mr Mahdy has been working with the 705 teams to equip them with the best tools possible to win a chance to get the team’s project funded and implemented in upcoming Hajj seasons.

“You only have 40 hours, in those 40 hours what you need to do is not develop a critical algorithm or make a patent, this is not going to be a good judging criteria, your goal is to pitch something within two minutes, or better yet two seconds, that makes me think,” he tells the teams he’s mentoring.

Judges will begin assessing the submissions on Friday during a series of two minute pitches. The top ten pitches will be given another chance to further explain the idea.

From those, four will be selected for funding to implement their idea. But Mr Mahdy said that anyone who makes it to the top ten will get worldwide attention.

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Although crowd management seems to be the challenge most teams are looking to tackle, some are switching their focus to stand out from the crowd.

“A payment system, people from around the world are coming here with their currency, trying to convert it, then they need to know what to buy, where to buy it, and at what cost are all concerns,” said Sultanah Alshammari, a PhD candidate writing her dissertation on the spread of disease in mass gatherings. Hajj is a unique example whereby the government is already tackling that issue.

She said their team is working on developing a smart payment system, either through an app or a plastic credit card, that caters to everyone performing Hajj. The idea would not only take the hassle out of converting the local currency of the 170 different countries that typically come to Hajj, but also to provide a guide for what to buy.

“A lot of the people coming to perform Hajj are spending their lifetime savings, or they are from low-income families, we want to make sure to provide them with ways to save money and to spend it wisely,” she said.

Others are taking to smart watches as an opportunity to modernise the experience. An odd symbiotic relationship is occurring between teams, whereby some are teaming up with others to build software on pieces of hardware they are developing.

“Yes, breaking the world Guinness record is nice, with the media glitz, but the goal is to help people perform Hajj,” said Mr Mahdy, “I have seen female developers going on stage, presenting, pitching, youth working together, this is changing things in how Saudi used to be and that means things are moving here.”