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Economy

Civic hacking in Pakistan

January 12th, 2016
in:Economy
by:Khadeeja Balkhi
located in:Pakistan
tags:civic hacking, Code for Pakistan, KP province

Pakistan suffers it all: corruption, lawlessness, dismal education, and even more dismal pockets of poverty. Yet, there is a new rising, untiring spirit in the country despite the onerous odds.

Steadily climbing at the annual rate of 5.4% since 2010, Pakistan’s GDP reached $247 billion in 2014, according to the World Bank Group. In purchasing power parity terms, Pakistan’s GDP is estimated at $882 billion.
Comprised of a significant enough number of people who left everything behind to reside in its carefully carved borders, spiritual and physical, to start again from scratch – Pakistan is an inherently entrepreneurial, resilient nation.  

Civic hacking, for example, is a cutting-edge global movement that gained rapid traction in Pakistan.  By definition, a civic hacker is a person who collaborates with others to create, build, and invent open source solutions using publicly released data, code and technology to solve social, economic, and environmental challenges relevant to their neighborhood, city, or country.

Sheba Najmi is one of them and chartered this space in Pakistan by founding the civic hacking non-profit organization “Code for Pakistan”. Like many, Najmi is also the second generation of ‘migrants’ who carved out a place for themselves in Pakistan (literally meaning ‘land of the pure’). “Three years ago, I wouldn’t have guessed that the KP Government (The Government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) would be carrying the torch in being so open to collaborating with civil society,” says Najmi.

“We were incredibly fortunate to find strong partnerships and collaboration in the KP province. Together, we’ve been able to do pretty progressive and forward-thinking work that’s put KP on the international civic innovation map.”

There are several initiatives lifting the optimism bar in Pakistan – civic hacking being just one of them. “The way civic hacking works is: Say you see a problem and you know there is a dataset to solve it,” explains Ali Raza, an entrepreneur who runs a game studio. “It’s just that someone has yet to make that connection between the available data and the solution.”

From Complaining to Collaboration

Raza is also Manager at one of the hallmarks of Code for Pakistan’s rapid success: the KP Civic Innovation Fellowship Program. The mountainous Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province whose entire Western boundary borders Afghanistan is more frequently known for bearing the brunt of the ‘war on terror’ – both on its soil and in the news.

“It’s a big enough deal that the government understood this positive take on the term ‘hacking’”, says Raza.

Yet it’s taking rather progressive steps: The KP Government hosts this Fellowship program, in a three-way partnership with the World Bank and Code for Pakistan. Given the pilot’s success, the government agreed to host 20 fellows this year, up from 12 last years.

Real-Time, Relevant Solutions

“I remember my first visit to the KP Traffic Police Department to create my driver’s license – and I still remember the congestion and commotion there,” said Ali Khan, Program Head, Code for Pakistan.

There was neither a token system to place people in line, nor a good software to balance the number of incoming license registrations, Khan said. The registration software would halt repeatedly and everyone would wait for the software to start responding again.

“This, is where Code for Pakistan’s Fellows come in,” Khan said. In typical software engineer speak he explained: The Fellows introduced a new Token System, fixing the glitches in the licensing software. The solution incorporated load balancing techniques and improved server communication protocols. The department has never run their registration process so seamlessly before.

And that’s not all. The same team of fellows developed a smartphone application for Traffic-Wardens to use in the field. The app remotely reports traffic violations onto a centralized server. This has, for the first time, enabled the KP Traffic Department to visualize traffic-data on a heat-map. The authorities are now capable of taking intelligent and calculated decisions based on real-time data from the field.

From Protests to Pitching-in

It is a proactive collaboration that includes the success factors of the apps (or tech-based start-ups and enterprises) developed and mentored by the KP Civic Innovation Fellowship Program.

“3 out of 5 applications that came out of the first Fellowship year have been adopted or sustained in some form,” says Sheba Najmi, Founder Code for Pakistan. For example, the last year’s Fellows in partnership with the Pakistan Disaster Management Association built the Messiah Disaster Survey Tool. The app will help this government department do its work better in surveying disaster areas. American angel investors recently picked up its twin app, the Messiah Emergency Messenger. Just a year from its inception in one of the world’s most feared cities, Peshawar, the app is now incorporated in the US, with equity. The prestigious Oasis 500 also selected the startup for incubation and acceleration within its network and the founders are being trained in Jordan.

An app that came out of Code for Pakistan’s Islamabad Civic Hackathon, QDEWS (Quick Disease Early Warning System), slashes disease outbreak detection time from 2.5 weeks to 1 day, with the potential to increase response time by 94 percent.

“The Fellowship is so exciting because all these government departments are now welcoming citizens in,” says Najmi, who also worked on her own civic product prior to founding Code for Pakistan. An open-source application called “Honolulu Answers,” her work won an IxDA (Interaction Design Association) award and has been replicated in a dozen cities around the world — including in Pakistan’s KP province as ‘Rehnuma’ (Urdu for ‘one who shows the way’). Website solutions like Rehnuma make it easier for people to navigate city information and services from getting a drivers license to registering a newborn.

Where once there was little else besides mutual mistrust, there is now collaboration.

That, is at the core of this movement: a deepening sense of ownership. This is about taking onus, about stepping in wherever one can lend a hand.

“Many of us have access to a way of thinking and skills that are not generally present in government,” says Najmi who holds two degrees from Stanford University. “We can use those skills and our hands to create solutions, rather than just using our voices to complain. Government and citizens need to truly partner and work together to deliver citizen-focused services. That’s the only way we can all win and move forward — together.”  

Read more topic related articles
Four promising female tech entrepreneurs from Pakistan
Web Activism: The great leveler
NUST SEECS hosts first Civic Hackathon
Poor city planning in Pakistan

Article written by:
Khadeeja Balkhi
Author
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By definition, a civic hacker is a person who collaborates with others to create, build, and invent open source solutions using publicly released data, code and technology to solve social, economic, and environmental challenges relevant to their neighborhood, city, or country.
“The way civic hacking works is: Say you see a problem and you know there is a dataset to solve it,” explains Ali Raza, an entrepreneur who runs a game studio. “It’s just that someone has yet to make that connection between the available data and the solution.”
“Many of us have access to a way of thinking and skills that are not generally present in government.”

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