A group photo of the virtual hackathon called “HackCorona” on March 19-20, 2020. Credit: Courtesy.
A group photo of the virtual hackathon called “HackCorona” on March 19-20, 2020. Credit: Courtesy.

Birthright, MIT and IDF Unit 8200 alumni collaborate in anti-coronavirus hackathon

Putting like minds together to create solutions to tackle necessary services during a pandemic.

Throughout Thursday night and into Friday, a virtual hackathon called “HackCorona” was held by the Birthright Excel Community (Birthright’s leadership program) in collaboration with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the 8200 Alumni Association (an elite intelligence unit in Israel’s Defense Forces) to find solutions to the newest challenges caused by the coronavirus.

The hackathon brought together 150 American and Israeli community fellows of the Birthright Excel Community, MIT interns and 8200 unit graduates to come up with innovative solutions to challenges, such as dealing with the new reality of remote work, reaching vulnerable communities including the elderly and people with pre-existing health conditions, combating fake news surrounding the corona outbreak, and innovating an effective education system through distance learning and in isolation.

Participants ranging from creative computer programmers, software developers, designers and innovators were also able to develop ideas for their own projects, separate from the above challenges posed to them.

Concerning remote work, they came up with two solutions: one, an application called “Quick Recap,” which records online meetings and creates a short and concise video version of the meeting, along with a transcription; and two, a platform called DigiService, which provides digital services such as educational lessons, training and workshops so service providers can easily upload their digital services to the platform, while consumers can search the different categories for a specific service instantaneously.

To aid vulnerable communities, participants came up with Veterunner, a bot that connects between people running on essential errands (such as grocery and pharmacy runs) and the home-quarantined who need delivery from the same place. Additionally, the idea for Seniorgarten was posed as a virtual space where the elderly can connect with their loved ones over the phone, while also connecting them to a variety of interactions and services.

The founders hacking from their balcony in Israel, from left: Gila Hayat, Dana Beiski-Nissan, Sapir Lazarovitch and Daniel Khankin, March 20, 2020. Credit: Courtesy.

The major solution for distance learning and a virtual education system was VRally, a virtual reality interface for children that allows them to learn remotely in a variety of entertaining “environments,” like a “safari-classroom.”

Other projects proposed included CabiBus, a system that allows employees whose work has been prioritized to reserve a seat on a public bus, allowing for more efficient transport use during periods of emergency; and Neighborly, an application that creates a virtual community for neighbors.

‘Humanity is striving for innovation’

Gidi Mark, CEO of Birthright Israel, who opened the hackathon, told participants, “In the 20 years since Birthright Israel’s inception and the immense journey that has brought more than 750,000 participants to Israel, things have never been so challenging as now.”

In addition to HackCorona, Birthright Excel fellows initiated the “Door 2 Dor” project that allows the elderly, who are most at risk from the COVID-19 epidemic, to a maintain a safe daily routine without having to leave home, with more than 1,000 volunteers in  the neighborhood signing up to bring them vital groceries and medicine.

Referring to the hackathon, Mark posed that together, with MIT and 8200, participants “have shown leadership, courage and creativity in the face of the hardships of the coronavirus.”

“Whilst vulnerable people are suffering, you have responded with practical and viable solutions. After 20 years, I can confidently say that I couldn’t be prouder,” he said.

Gila Hayat, Sapir Lazarovitch, Dana Beiski-Nissan and Daniel Khankin, programmers and members of the Birthright Israel Excel community, said “before the new orders came into effect and while the coronavirus began to gain momentum, we could not remain indifferent to the situation and thought of how we could help. We decided to use the experience we gained in the world of entrepreneurship and technology, and developed a chat bot that answers frequently asked questions. When we were done, we realized that there are loads of talented and isolated people who want to help and don’t know how or don’t have the framework to do it.

“This is how our hackathon came about—a fully remote hackathon that allows everyone to connect and contribute from their own living rooms, and share their technological and creative talents to solve problems that arise in this current situation. We are amazed and humbled by the organizations that joined our effort, and are confident that this initiative will continue in more virtual collaborations to come.”

Eliana Dan, CEO of the 8200 Alumni Association, thanked everyone for participating in such an important initiative. “In ordinary times, our association supports young entrepreneurs in Israel, but now our focus is to leverage our vast alumni network to assist with coming up with solutions for handling the day-to-day life under the shadow of the corona issue,” she told JNS.

She also expressed certainty that those participating in the hackathon were “the right people for the mission.”

Maor Farid, director of the Science Abroad program at MIT, expressed his honor in taking part in the hackathon, saying it brought together a host of great minds in order to fight the coronavirus implications.

“In these days of global crisis,” he told JNS, “humanity is striving for innovation and innovative ideas.”

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