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Female participants in the Haj Hackathon.
Amer Hilabi/Getty Images
Hacking the Hajj.
SIGN LANGUAGE

Four Saudi women won a hackathon to make the Hajj safer

By Dan Kopf

The Hajj is a huge feat of logistics. In 2018, an estimated 1.5 million people will take part in the annual Islamic pilgrimage to holy sites in and around Mecca, Saudi Arabia. About 1.3 million of them will come from abroad, according to Arab News. For many, it will be a once in a lifetime experience.

Accommodating this massive influx of pilgrims requires a vast transportation network, medical infrastructure, and a pop-up air-conditioned tent city that holds 160,000 people. Still, due to the large crowds, the Hajj remains dangerous. Over 2,400 people were killed in a stampede in 2015. Though this was a particularly large tragedy, stampedes killing hundreds are not unusual. Also, like any large gathering, crime is a concern.

To address some of the Hajj’s problems, the Saudi Federation for Cybersecurity, Programming and Drones took on a distinctly modern approach: it put on a hackathon. The Hajj Hackathon took place over three days in early August, in Jeddah. Participants were charged with coming up with technological solutions tailored to the Hajj’s challenges, such as crowd management, public health, and financial transactions. Two million Saudi riyals (worth about $530,000) in equity investment was awarded to winners.

With nearly 3,000 participants from across the world, the event broke the Guinness World Record for most participants in a hackathon. It was a star-studded affair. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak acted as a judge, while Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales was also in attendance.

The winners were an all-female Saudi Arabian team that designed an app, called Turjuman, for translating signs around Mecca without internet access. The hope is that if non-Arabic speakers could easily understand signage, it would lead to less confusion among attendees and reduce the chance of a stampede. Scannable QR codes would have be installed on signs for the app to work, which would also have a voice feature for those unable to read. The runner-up was a team of men from Egypt that designed a electronic payment system for Hajj pilgrims, which would reduce the likelihood of cash being stolen.

Unlike many events in Saudi Arabia, there was no gender segregation at the hackathon; about one-third of the attendees were women. “We managed to destroy the impossible and prove that Saudi women can achieve anything,” said Bayan al-Ghamdi, a member of the winning team, according to the Financial Times (paywall). This video captured the suspense—and elation—of the women’s victory when it was announced at the the award ceremony: