Meet the Humanitarian Innovators of the Future

Students from across Australia gathered for Australia’s first Humanitarian Innovation Hackathon



Over this past weekend, The Warren Centre held Australia’s first-ever Humanitarian Innovation Hackathon at the The Women’s College in the University of Sydney. This event brought together 60 students from over 10 universities to develop solutions to challenges provided by the leading international humanitarian response agency RedR Australia. 

Students gathered together and formed teams on Friday night based on four challenge areas: nature, shelter, climate and affected populations. Challenge statements were released to the teams on Saturday morning, and each explored a specific current issue facing the world’s largest refugee camp, Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.


About Cox’s Bazar

The mass human exodus that began in 2017 from Myanmar to Bangladesh has turned Cox’s Bazar into the world’s largest refugee settlement, housing over one million refugees. Due to the horrific ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, 2017 alone saw the influx of more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims, and the crisis has put a severe strain on camp resources. 

“The humanitarian needs are enormous. Around 430,000 people have been displaced in the space of a month. They have crossed a border and are now seeking food, shelter, water and health services. When people are displaced like this, life doesn’t stop. Pregnant women still need to give birth. They need shelter. Clean water and sanitation will need to be provided for the displaced along with food. Women, girls and other vulnerable groups will need to be protected,” RedR Australia’s CEO Kirsten Sayers said.

The Challenges

The Warren Centre convened a team of private sector volunteers from the engineering industry, staff from RedR Australia’s headquarters in Melbourne, and RedR frontline deployment personnel who have attended Cox’s Bazar and other crisis sites.  Through 2019, this team, called the “H.I. Tech” – Humanitarian Innovation Technology Team, elicited four problems that RedR staff reported were affecting refugees at Cox’s Bazar. University of Sydney academics gave advice, and the four problem situations were developed into challenge statements presented to the hackathon contestants for solution in the 48-hour competition.


Challenge 1: Nature – Pachyderm panic! (Managing elephant migration):

Elephants are creatures of habit, and each year they follow their traditional migration routes moving through different areas to feed, socialise and find shelter. The critically endangered Asian elephants that live in Bangladesh have followed the same routes between Myanmar (Burma) and Bangladesh for generations but have now found their way blocked by the refugee camps developed at Cox’s Bazar. Elephants are very large and strong, and their typical response to an obstacle is to charge forward and destroy it. Death and chaos have been the result. Panicked elephants can be aggressive, and a significant number of human deaths have occurred as a result of elephant attacks. The livelihoods of people living on the migration paths is also disrupted, as they flee areas in which elephants are active.  Shelters and amenities have been destroyed by the agitated elephants. Solutions were sought to help mitigate the conflicting needs of humans and elephants. RedR sought ways to help track and understand the movement of the elephants, so that inhabitants of the camp are aware of where the elephants are, where they are going and what people should do.  The relief agency sought methods to de-escalate conflict between humans and the elephants when they come into contact. In the longer term, RedR sought solutions to manage the settlement so that both the humans and elephants in the area can live and thrive.


Challenge 2: Shelter – Bamboo boring beetles:

Bamboo is a highly adaptable and useful construction material. It can be very strong, inexpensive, lightweight, renewable, is easy to work and is highly available through many parts of the world. For this reason, bamboo is one of the primary construction materials used to build structures in Cox’s Bazar. Bamboo is used to build shelters, bridges, and the much needed medical infrastructure through the camps.  Despite its many advantages, bamboo has one great disadvantage. As a biological material, it is prone to degrade over time. In normal circumstances this is not a great concern, as properly treated bamboo can last for several years before needing repair or replacement. Unfortunately, circumstances in Cox’s Bazaar are not normal circumstances. Due to the great need for bamboo, there has not been the time, resources or expertise to properly treat or handle the bamboo that has been harvested for use in construction, and this has led to a significant infestation of bamboo boring beetles throughout the refugee camp.

It has been estimated that nearly every shelter in Cox’s Bazaar has some level of infestation of these boring beetles. These bamboo boring beetles can reduce the lifespan of a bamboo shelter to only a few months, which puts a massive strain on the availability of bamboo which was previously estimated to be able to last for several years. The situation is particularly critical as the camps enter the monsoon season, where adequate and robust shelter becomes even more critical and the requirement to repair damage structure and infrastructure becomes even greater. RedR sought methods that might be used by those living in bamboo shelters to prolong the life of their structures that already have a boring beetle infestation.  The relief agency sought approaches that people might adopt when using fresh bamboo to ensure that the material does not become infested. RedR sought new ideas for ways for procuring and improving bamboo to ensure that it is of higher quality when it arrives in the camps.


Challenge 3: Climate – Monsoonal flooding

 The seasonal weather around Cox’s Bazar is typified by a very strong monsoon season, where high winds and rain can bring significant challenges. The rapidly developed settlements through Cox’s Bazar are not robust to the weather, and the location of some settlements puts them at a special risk. In lower laying areas, some communities are located on the tops of hills and other raised areas that can become isolated islands during high rain events. These island communities are surrounded by what is essentially a shallow sea of mud, hazardous waste and contaminated water. Wading or swimming through this water can be extremely hazardous, both from immediate hazards and the risk of longer-term infection and disease caused by contamination from septic systems. RedR should technologies or processes that could be implemented to allow people and material to safely traverse monsoonal flooding. Solutions were sought that take into account the availability of materials, the skills and resources of those living in the camps, and the physical condition of those who may wish to travel across the flooding. 


Challenge 4: Affected Populations – Gender Based Violence risk mitigation through environmental design:

Management of safety and security (S&S) in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps is complex and multifaceted. Threats can be slow or rapid onset. Threats can affect a broad range of camp inhabitants or can be targeted at, or disproportionately affect, specific groups. Special-interest groups in S&S management include women, children (especially unaccompanied minors), the elderly, the disabled and those chronically ill. It is naturally important that the camps are objectively as safe, and importantly, are perceived by inhabitants to be as safe as possible. The particular focus of this challenge was the S&S issue of gender-based violence (GBV).  As in most humanitarian emergencies, GBV is reported to be prevalent in the Cox’s Bazaar camps. GBV is an umbrella term for any harmful act that is perpetrated against a person’s will and that is based on socially ascribed, gender differences between males and females. The hackathon participants addressed concerns with the design of shelters and the immediate surrounding environment that can fall short in mitigating GBV risks due to size, a lack of secure locking ability, overcrowding, proximity to other shelters, lack of adequate lighting and the need for innovative ways that the shelters can be modified or designed to improve GBV risk mitigation. An important consideration was that effective solutions must be cost-effective and easily implemented, due to budget and time constraints within the camps.

The Hackathon: Rising to today’s humanitarian challenges

During the weekend the student teams met with Humanitarian Mentors from RedR, Innovation Mentors who were local technology and engineering leaders, and Team Mentors (PhD students) to help them better understand the issues on the ground and to determine what may be feasible, smart and innovative solutions to each of the challenges at hand.

On Sunday, the teams prepared their presentations which addressed the specifc challenge problem they were trying to solve. Each team was given four minutes to present their ‘pitch’ and had two minutes of questioning from the judges. The expert panel of judges considered how the solutions uses engineering skills, humanitarian knowhow and technologies.  The solutions needed to be original, novel and inventive. Only solutions that were environmentally sound and sustainable could win.  Furthermore, the teams’ solutions had to be practical including in consideration for cost and the potential to be deliverable by an organisation such as RedR.  Finally, the solutions had to consider the effects of vulnerable populations with respect to gender, disability, elderly, and the very young. The expert panel of judges included Elizabeth Taylor, Chair of RedR Australia; Richard Kell, Chair of The Warren Centre; Dr. Bronwyn Evans, Director of the Digital Health CRC; and Dr. Aaron Opdyke of The University of Sydney.

The students pitched solutions such as bamboo bridges, wearable RFID bangles, modular walkways, and sensor lights to help relieve the particular issues they aimed to solve.

The Winners

Principal sponsor Laing O’Rourke awarded a $1000 prize for the Best Pitch of the evening. Judge Rowan Braham awarded Team “Rafts & Rails”, who included Joseph Malicdem from Macquarie University and Boran Wang, Jasper Rasmussen, Qiting Huang, Victor Zhuang from the University of Sydney.

The grand prize winners of the overall Humanitarian Innovation Hackathon were a blended team of University of Sydney and University of Queensland engineering students who addressed the challenge of “Pachyderm Panic”. For about AUD$85 per unit, the team members designed a solution that utilises local Bangladeshi honeybees that would nest in beehives.  The elephants hate bees, and honeybees hate elephants. Asian elephants are highly intelligent and remember getting stung by bees. The solution proposed by the winning team sought to re-route the elephants along a path that would be safe for people and safe for the pachyderms. The winning team proposed to place a few hundred beehives along a 3.5km path to create a “Bee Shield” that would protect the refugees and also could provide a valuable income stream of honey production. Sound crazy? Actually, the team found that similar techniques have been used in Kenya to deflect migrating elephants away from villages, and the hackathon team believes that the method could be adapted to Bangladesh, using local bamboo, local logs and indigenous Bangladeshi bee species.  Brilliant!

Judges called the solution “elegant” as it balances ecology with safety and provides a winning economic proposition that could yield income for vulnerable members of the refugee community.

The winning team, “Fran’s Boys”, includes: 

  • The University of Queensland: Fransiska Bekti
  • The University of Sydney: Cameron Choi, Kevin Miao, Mark Cavanna and Terrence Darma

This story is featured in the 2 August 2019 edition of The Warren Centre’s Prototype newsletter. Sign up for the Prototype here.

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