Empowerhack: Inclusive humanitarian tech with a focus on women
Authors: Charlotte Seeley-Musgrave and Han Pham,
Photo credits: to Kriselda Rabino (group shot), Will Edgecombe (london hack) and novan education and training (ghana hack).
The Beginning of Empowerhack
In 2015, the news of the mass displacement of over 4.6 million refugees into Syria’s neighbouring countries and further into Europe was met by a spectacular response from the world’s volunteer technology communities to create digital solutions for refugees, including virtual schools, social integration initiatives, and more.
Yet, something was missing in the general response. Think about this: 80% of the world’s refugees are women and children. The gender-based challenges facing women and girls in crisis -- from increased violence to health and educational/employment access -- often require a challenging level of understanding, insight and empathy.
At the end of 2015, Empowerhack was created to respond to this gap, aiming to build sustainable humanitarian technologies for women and girls in crisis.
We started with one weekend-long hackathon at the close of November. Within months, we grew to an amazing global community of hundreds of skilled volunteers - from health advisors, community specialists, interaction designers, developers and entrepreneurs and NGOs working together. Today, our core projects include digital solutions in peer support for refugee safety and improved access to reproductive healthcare for pregnant refugee women. We’ve just launched our follow up design event, a global humanitarian health hackathon across three cities: Accra, London and Amsterdam to fuel a continuing conversation around issues such as mental health, reproductive health, patient-led health data.
Empowerhack is Culture
This is our secret: Part of our magic in addressing gender-based challenges around the world is that we believe that if we are to “solve problems” in what we create, we also have the change the culture that supports those ideas.
Let’s be honest: we’re not just creating solutions for gender-based challenges for women and girls halfway around the world, we’re also creating a more inclusive, diverse culture for us to thrive as well.
Empowerhack works hard to stay honest and open, which might not be something you might consider when you think about the fast moving world of technology. But if you, like us, are interested in delving into highly sensitive, dynamic, tense but illuminating design contexts like these -- trust is paramount. So is the manner in which you frame the working environment you invite people into.
Inclusivity is an opportunity that can not be taken for granted. To learn to listen better to the needs of the people we are designing for, we had to create a safe space for our community to tackle hard challenges in women and girls’ health, safety/violence prevention, and education/employment.
Hackathons are innately a venue for experimentation and demonstration - prototype quickly and pitch it well. It’s not always easy to “stop the clock” on fast to introduce “slow code” -- to connect values to what we are designing -- meeting by meeting, event by event, project by project. It’s important to shift the way we communicate to value listening and learning.
A culture of empathy meant we could bring powerful life experiences to the fore to warm the manner in which we approach technology. Working on EmpowerHack meant we could address women’s issues with the inside knowledge that comes with being or identifying as a woman: How would they feel about breastfeeding in a camp? What was culturally appropriate in seeking support? How is access to health related to previous traumatic experiences in earlier countries? EmpowerHack taught us that tech can not only empower refugee women and girls, it also empowers us - women in tech - to help them and ourselves.
Empowerhack’s culture celebrating collaboration over competition, shared ownership and open technologies means we have been able to progress farther, faster. Today we expanded from one event to our own collaborative accelerator where we bring NGOs and other tech for good organisations like Chayn (one of cofounders of the first hackathon), Women Hack for Non Profits and UX for Change UK to think about how we can shift the dialogue from competitive design to sustainable design and partnership.
We’re setting sail on our next series of events, including an all weekend humanitarian health hack in London on April 8-10th.
This is part of a global health hackathon that kicked off in Ghana and will continue after the London's event to Amsterdam at the end of April to dive deeper into humanitarian health both globally –and locally,