Humanitarian hackathon for Gaza
Batool Matter and Michelle Graham stood shoulder to shoulder in front of a panel of judges, ready to present their design for a better ambulance emergency triage system for low-resource settings. They and four other team members had spent the better part of a week working on the design, and they had carefully rehearsed their presentation.
But after a few minutes, the internet connection unexpectedly cut out, and the video feed connecting Matter and two of the judges to the rest of the group blinked into blackness. Suddenly, Graham was left to continue the presentation on her own.
Although they appeared side by side, Matter, Graham, and the judges stood a world apart—half of them located in a gold-painted shipping container on Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus, half in a similar room in the Gaza Strip on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
It was the final day of the Humanitarian Design Challenge presented by the Johns Hopkins Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design, or CBID. Participants in Baltimore and Gaza had spent the final week of June designing solutions for health care problems in humanitarian crises and conflict, with a specific focus on helping first responders in Gaza—among the most densely populated places on the planet. Health and safety problems there have many sources: political turmoil, military conflict with Israel, travel and import restrictions, and poverty.
The challenge includes an unusual feature: a series of audiovisual Portals from Shared Studios that allow teams separated geographically to collaborate as though they were in the same room. With floor-to-ceiling video screens, a discreet camera, and high-quality audio, the Portals create the effect of being face to face with a person far away.
“This was the first time I learned about the Portals, and it was really wonderful to be able to share and talk person to person like in the real world,” said Majd AbuHamed, who was one of 45 scientists and health workers in Gaza to participate in the challenge. “My teammates in Baltimore were really enjoyable, helpful, and had a lot of information to share with us in Gaza. Our discussions were good, and it was thanks to this technology that it was easier for us [to work together].”
For the 19 participants in Baltimore, the Portals served as a reminder of technological disparities around the world and how video conferencing tools that are often taken for granted in the United States can create a new world of opportunities for those in other countries.
On the day of judging, coordinators versed in tech troubleshooting were able to re-establish the Portal connection, allowing Matter to catch up to her team’s presentation.
“Sorry for the interruption!” the coordinator said as she cued up the presentation. “But, hello, this is Gaza!”
The Humanitarian Design Challenge was funded by a grant from the Aspen Institute and supported by the U.S. State Department and the Bezos Foundation. The project honors the memory of Ambassador Christopher Stevens, who died in the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012. The program is designed to honor his passion for building understanding and cooperation between Americans and people from the Middle East.