In Zambia: UNDP Climate Action Hackathon Accelerates Innovative Approaches to Provide Weather Information to Vulnerable Communities in Africa

Mar 25, 2016

23 hackers worked long hours during the three days of UNDP’s Climate Action Hackathon to create the apps. Hackers Leverage Weather and Climate Data to Create Mobile Applications to Improve Farming Productivity and Save Lives. Photo: UNDP

The UNDP’s Climate Action Hackathon hosted recently in Livingstone, Zambia, brought together young software developers from around the world to develop innovative data and communications technologies to share weather and climate information with communities to better prepare themselves for the realities of climate change.

“By connecting energetic young application developers with National Hydro-Meteorological Services and Disaster Management Units across sub-Saharan Africa, we are working to bridge the last mile to bring actionable weather information to vulnerable communities across the region,” said Bonizella Biagini, Programme Manager for UNDP’s Programme on Climate Information for Resilient Development in Africa (CIRDA). “In most of sub-Saharan Africa, farmers are facing increased risk as a result of a changing climate. Severe weather, flash floods and lightning kill farmers on a regular basis. The applications developed in this hackathon have the potential to both save lives and protect livelihoods.”

With dozens of local languages, high-levels of illiteracy, and limited electricity and access to media, many vulnerable communities in Africa do not receive reliable weather reports, and only a few nations possess the ability to issue early warning messages. Through the CIRDA Programme, National HydroMet Agencies in 11 African Nations are enhancing their weather and climate monitoring technologies, improving forecasts, and building the policies and enabling actions required to issue early alerts and effectively share weather data that farmers can use to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

More than 100 people applied for scholarships to attend the Climate Action Hackathon in person. A total of 23 hackers were awarded scholarships. With only three days to learn about the persistent challenges in bringing weather and climate information to African communities and build the apps themselves, the hackers worked around the clock to create prototype models, data visualization tools and end-to-end product designs.

Data sets were provided to the hackers by aWhere, Earth Networks, Geonetcast, the International Research Institute for Climate and Society’s Data Library, Ubimet, and the Zambia Meteorological Department. With these data streams in hand, hackers began to tackle challenges presented to them by event organizers.

Experts from UNDP, Columbia and Stanford University’s The Brown Institute for Media Innovations and The International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) were on hand to facilitate discussions, help hackers understand the nuanced approaches necessary, and connect broad sets of data with the unique needs of end users.

“The Hackathon is about creating African-built high-tech solutions for Africa’s challenges in adapting to climate change. By leveraging mobile communications, text messages and other new-generation technologies, African nations have a great opportunity to share improved weather reports with the communities that need it the most,” said Catherine Vaughan, IRI Senior Staff Associate.   

The hackers presented their products to delegates from 10 African National Meteorological and Hydrological Services on the closing day of a larger UNDP-supported multi-national workshop on increasing resiliency with tailored weather information services.

The app most voted by the African Country representatives used simple design and processes to provide farmers with a call-in mobile app that provided real-time weather information voice messages in local languages.  Other applications included a visualization and risk-management app that agricultural extension workers could use to easily analyze weather data, a mapping app that African pastoralists could connect with to avoid hazards such as floods and wildfire, and a text app that would allow agricultural extension agents to register farmers to receive tailored texts on weather conditions. 

The Hackathon will continue virtually until June 1, with teams working to scale-up and refine their concepts and applications. 

“Now it’s the job of the hackers, National Hydro-Meteorological Services, Disaster Management Units and other partners to take their bright concepts and the array of available data and work to deploy an application that will have immediate impact in the areas in need,” said Michael Krisch, Deputy Director of the Brown Institute for Media Innovation.