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“We Estonians don’t know how to just stay still and do nothing in the midst of a crisis – we act and we hack!”

With ten years of experience in organising hackathons, Estonian-based Garage48 together with the programme Accelerate Estonia have put together an online hackathon in record time, in order to tackle the coronavirus pandemic crisis and emerge from it stronger than ever. At the time, no one could imagine that soon after the first event, they would be organising another with a global reach.

First, there was ‘Hack the Crisis’. On the 13th of March 2020, the day after the Estonian government had declared an emergency situation because of the virus, ‘Hack the Crisis’ was the first virtual hackathon to begin. It was endorsed by the President of Estonia Kersti Kaljulaid and strongly supported by the then Minister of Foreign Trade and Information Technology, Kaimar Karu. More than 1100 people from over 20 countries and 14 time-zones gathered to develop solutions to help Estonia emerge from the crisis. In addition, many countries organised their own hackathons.

Less than a month later there was ‘Global Hack’ with over 12 000 participants from almost 100 countries. Everyone in their own homes, in lockdown all over the world, came together to work out new ideas and solutions.

“The organisation of this hackathon was a hackathon for us,” says Kai Isand, the main coordinator of ‘Global Hack’ and Member of the Advisory Board of Garage48. “After the first hackathon, countries organised their national ones and I thought that the global one could take place in May or June. But the more we discussed the idea, the more we realised that it needed to happen quicker, like right now.”

Kai Isand explains that the global event was pulled together in only three weeks with mostly the help and know-how of more than forty volunteers. Even modest estimates show that the hackathon, which took place in April, reached tens of millions of people. The invitation to participate was even shared on CNN news and most larger media channels all over the world covered the event. “It was a bit magical that it all came together so fast and so successfully,” says Isand.

Before coronavirus, the charm of hackathons was in bringing people together in one space for 48 hours – the energy was born on location. Are virtual hackathons here to stay? And when will the next one take place?

Kai Isand says that ‘Global Hack’ will not be the last one, but at the moment all energy is spent on helping the winning themes of the hackathon and bringing them in contact with potential partners.

“I hope that real-life events and online events will become a hybrid. We thought of quite a few new solutions which were born out of the situation and need – what kind of tools and communication channels to use, how to manage and mentor online, and so on. In the case of hackathons, it is important that people come together. We definitely proved that it is possible over the web, but it doesn’t quite replace the energy and magic which is born through one-to-one communication.”

This year, Garage48 celebrates a decade of activity. Six successful Estonian startup leaders are founding members. At the time of its birth, hackathons were nothing new in the world and the founders wanted to bring the hackathon culture and the Silicon Valley approach to Estonia and the surrounding region to stimulate the local startup environment. The Garage48 team has organised 200 hackathons in 45 different cities and 21 countries all over the world in its ten years of existence.

“Until today our vision and mission remain the same. It is to demonstrate that in the space of a mere 48 hours it is possible to test your idea,” explains Merit Vislapu, Project Manager of Garage48. “The principle is that when you come to the hackathon, you will immediately realise whether your idea can be sold, whether people would use it. Instead of a slideshow, we want to see the real building of a product, be it an app or a landing page or something similar. There needs to be proper market research and the product needs a marketing and business plan and replies from specific clients.”

Albeit Garage48 has organised hacks in Scandinavia and Asian countries, the focus is on foreign- and development collaborations in those countries where the culture and startup know-how is lacking. Great cooperation has been created with the Ukraine and Moldova, in collaboration with the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the hackathons will spread to Africa. Estonian hackathon organisers are already in Uganda and Rwanda. “It needs to be emphasised that we always want to organise events in cooperation with the local community and local partners and take on more of a supporting role ourselves.”

Vislapu emphasises that hackathons are not startup factories. The main thing is to help promote entrepreneurship and a sense of teamwork in people, but they do their best to help future entrepreneurs to continue with their projects after the end of the hackathon.

Examples of successful ideas from ‘Global Hack’

SunCrafter – Solar Powered Light-Disinfection
SunCrafter is a Berlin-based solar startup producing grid-independent solar systems for simple and clean energy access in urban environments and rural communities. By coupling UV lamps with upcycled solar generators, the hand disinfection stations are easy, affordable, and barrier-free access to everyone.

Though the total usage of streaming services has surged by between 50% and 70%, starting from January 2020, most of the popular platforms are still hard to monetise as they do not offer a pay-per-view option and their links are easily sharable. Isonation brings artists and fans together.

Act on Crisis
Because of the global lockdown, approximately 360 million people are experiencing strong emotional imbalance. Yet they don’t have access to secure online emotional support that fits their cultural background. AOC is a platform that identifies your current status and provides you with personalised emotional support.

‘Hack the Crisis’ success story – chatbot SUVE

Suve (State Universal Virtual Estonian) is an automated chatbot; it was one of the ideas that started at the ‘Hack the Crisis’ hackathon. Its main task is to make sure that everyone living in or visiting Estonia can get their questions answered from official sources. Suve has been integrated into several public websites. During the emergency situation related to COVID-19, she helps to provide accurate and trustworthy information in English, Russian, and Estonian.

“The idea of a nationwide chatbot service circulated even before the crisis, but the hackathon enabled us to quickly put the idea into action, and hopefully, it will reduce the burden on hotlines,” said Michaela Snopková, one of the creators of Suve. As a consultant to foreign specialists, she has noticed that people often have questions that do not require a personal consultation, but rather they need to be directed to the right information.

Kata Varblane, Sales Support Manager of the Estonian Investment Agency, is also on the team of Suve. Varblane says that the usage of Suve was record-breaking in its first week after going public: the emergency situation in the country was novel for everyone and the number of inquiries from people jammed all official channels. “We can say that the rapid introduction of Suve was really the right step. The solution that was created on the initiative of volunteers at the hackathon really offered relief at a very critical moment,” says Varblane in praise of the solution.

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