The why and the how of Central America’s first all female hackathon

BY Alice H Shackelford | March 28, 2018|Comments 0

While hackathons are commonplace in some parts of the world, we wanted to try one in Costa Rica. Our first hackathon at the United Nations in Costa Rica was a chance to use technology to connect Central American experts in science, engineering and technology with sustainable development problems.

During the formulation of our United Nations Development Assistance Framework for 2018-2022, we identified several challenges that Costa Ricans face daily: urban sustainability, waste management, security issues and a lack of mobility solutions for persons living with disabilities. Another related issue in Central America is the lack of women’s participation in the digital tech space. Is there something that we at the UN in Costa Rica could do to create more equal spaces for women to unfold their skills in the tech sector? We think so!

Bringing women and tech together

To make this happen, we thought an all-women hackathon would fit the bill. We could work with brilliant women to come up with sustainable development solutions using technology.

We linked up Cooperativa Sulá Batsú, The Center for Urban Sustainability, the Inter-American Development Bank, Google, the Costa Rican Ministry of Public Education, the Ministry of Science and Technology, the National Council for Scientific and Technological Research, CENFOTEC University, Universidad Hispanoamericana, Tecnológico de Costa Rica,  MIT Media Lab and Access Now, to organize the first female Central American hackathon and promote women’s empowerment. To join efforts means to go further!

The way our hackathon worked

180 women from Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic and Mexico signed up for the hackathon. Interestingly, 60 percent of the ‘hackers’ came from rural areas.

We organized a preparatory workshop on 7 and 8 October 2017 to discuss the problems we wanted to solve: urban sustainability issues. We also did some skills sharing about design thinking, prototyping, digitally based business models, and how to deliver an elevator pitch. Of the women who participated, 65 came to the face-to-face sessions and 48 connected via live stream.

During the prep workshop we agreed on six goals:

  1. To promote an environment of mutual support, exchange and collective construction
  2. To address issues of 2030 Agenda, especially SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities) and SDG 13 (Climate Action)
  3. To promote gender equality and women’s empowerment by encouraging them to get involved in the area of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)
  4. To promote the conditions for technology development from the perspective of young women in Central America
  5. To develop leadership conditions for young women in the tech sector
  6. To promote the creation of a technology network for young women in Central America

Ready, set, hack!  

We kicked off our 30-hour hackathon on 21 October 2017. For two days, women between 15 and 35 years old hacked non-stop at CENFOTEC University and the Technological Institute of Costa Rica (TEC). We divided the women into four categories, according to their age and technology creation experience.

It was amazing to see how women who took part were pouring energy and creativity into their prototype idea. The Center for Urban Sustainability and the Inter-American Development Bank helped us to highlight inherent problems associated with solid waste management, urban mobility and public spaces. We also had Dr. Colin “Topper” Carew, the CodeNext Director from MIT Media Lab share his knowledge about technology and innovation.

After 30 hours of coding, designing, troubleshooting, and a lot of coffee, the hackers came up with 36 prototypes; among these, 13 with a focus on solid waste management, 12 on urban mobility and 11 on public spaces.

Some of the inventions were:

  • A website and a mobile application that identifies insecure areas where assaults, harassment and kidnappings have been reported. The platform classifies the city into green, yellow and red zones indicating the safest and most risky areas. The idea is to encourage people to take preventive security measures and to help authorities develop actions to ensure the security of its citizens.
  • A robot that maps the sewerage network to help local governments identify saturation and damage of the city’s sewer networks. The information can help the municipal governments in the decision-making processes linked to the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation.
  • An app that provides bus schedules and routes for people living with disabilities. The app is connected to the bus service and has a “buzzer” function that notifies drivers ahead of time that a person with a disability will board the bus. This allows the driver to prepare the road vehicle and make it easier and safer for the person getting on the bus.

The diversity of the innovations only confirmed the importance of creating opportunities for women to participate in the construction of digital technology. Betting on this project was definitely an awesome decision!

Wrapping it up

To mark the success of the hackathon, each team showcased their innovation to a high level jury from the United Nations, government, international cooperation representatives, civil society organizations and academia. The goal was to assess each project, evaluate the main successes, and make note of points for improvement. Instead of giving out an award based on rankings, the organizing committee provided valuable guidance that would help the teams advance in their work. Each team member received the same award and certificate.  

What’s next?

One of the key objectives for us at the UN in Costa Rica was to make sure that all teams would be able to finalize their proposals with support from the partners. It was also important to strengthen the tech skills of each woman that participated to ideally set them up for a successful university career related to the issues addressed at the hackathon.

For example, our partners at Cooperativa Sulá Batsú invited the young women to be part of the TIC-as project, which aims to integrate young women from rural areas and urban areas in training spaces related to STEM, as an alternative to enter the labor market. The teams interested in finalizing their innovation can also continue to polish their proposals.

For us, a huge indicator of success is that these scientists, engineers and IT experts  are now part of the solution to the problems that we face in sustainable development. This experience motivates us to continue working in innovative ways to work more in partnerships and to learn from the talent pool that is available to create sustainable solutions for real problems.

The CENFOTEC University and the Tecnológico de Costa Rica established a follow-up strategy to create training spaces in the technology field and provide support throughout the admissions process to all the women interested in enrolling in a career in STEM. One area we haven’t  yet worked on, but would like advice on, is connecting women in STEM with catalytic finance. If anyone has ideas or tips on this so that the hackathon is a launching pad, do get it touch!


Alice H Shackelford Alice is the UN Resident Coordinator for Costa Rica. You can follow her on Twitter.

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