Chennai school kids come together at hackathon to solve civic problems


The team from Alpha International with their prototype to save water in the shower. Pic: Aruna Natarajan

Take a quick look around you and it should not be too difficult to identify some of the most pressing issues in your immediate surroundings. Waste management, air pollution, water scarcity, plastic pollution: these and other issues pose a direct threat to the quality of life as we know it in the city today. But what is your solution to these problems? How would ‘you’ propose to address these civic issues?

While some may flounder a bit when confronted with this question, the same cannot be said of the bright young minds participating in the Sarvalokaa Hackathon 2019, where they came together to apply their problem-solving skills to combat some of the issues.

Solve small, dent big

The two-day event was organised as a collaborative effort by ReapBenefit, a social enterprise that aims to transform civic engagement and the Chettinad Sarvalokaa Education. The hackathon saw participation from various schools across the city. The participants were divided into teams, with each team deciding to tackle a challenge that they found most relevant to their school or local community.

Twenty teams worked on the broad themes of waste, energy, water and sanitation, to arrive at solutions for problems within the domains, at a micro level. The problems identified by the teams included wastage of water, air pollution, accumulation of garbage, plastic pollution, food waste, at-home composting to name a few.

The solutions 

After brainstorming and mentorship for the better part of a day, the teams got to crafting their solutions. They them exhibited them along with a demonstration, detailing the process behind the idea and the working of their prototypes.

Students from DAV Girls Higher Secondary School, for example, focused on the busy traffic on the road leading to their school and the resulting air pollution. The girls fashioned an air quality monitor with the available kit from ReapBenefit to measure readings of PM2.5 at a given time. They hoped that they could use these readings to make a case for better traffic regulation and reduce harmful vehicular emissions.

The team from DAV exhibit their air quality monitor. Pic: Aruna Natarajan

The team from Hiranandani Upscale School decided to address the enormous amount of food waste the school campus ended up with. They started by estimating the amount of food wasted each day and the possible causes for the same. They then crafted a campaign to be taken up by the school administration, pressing for reduction in the size of plates, to reduce portion sizes. They also suggested reduction in the size of servings. The proposal also included creating posters and banners to educate fellow students and employees of the school about the need to cut down on food waste and alternative ways to use the food that goes unconsumed.

The students of Alpha International stepped up to reduce wastage of water in the shower. The team fashioned a sensor that could be linked with the shower. The sensor will indicate whenever the water flowing through the shower goes above a permissible limit. In the miniature prototype, the sensors are designed to change colours once the user has consumed one litre. The lights turn to red and emit a beeping sound when water usage goes beyond three litres. The team hoped that with such continuous measurement and notification, the users would become conscious about the amount of water being used and take steps to cut back on the same.

In the Sarvaloka Hackathon I learnt to solve problems in a easy way. It was fun,and the mentors were really helpful. I think everyone enjoyed this hackathon.  Our group mates will implement the ideas given by the mentors there. This was a good experience.I learnt about prototyping and trigger mapping. This way we can find the solution easily.” – Karolin Priscilla, The Indian Public School, Erode.

Firming up ideas

Before they could be prototyped, the ideas proposed by the participants were put through a rigorous process that helped them refine the solution at each stage, through a technique dubbed as trigger mapping. The teams were encouraged to filter their solutions through a series of guiding principles in  phased manner. ““The Hackathon taught us how to solve problems we see every day, one step at a time,” says Soorya Narayanan, 13, BVM Global School.

The first stage involved the outlining of a clear vision for the challenge at hand. The next step was the identification of a target audience who would be impacted by the solution proposed. The third step saw the teams think critically about the possible reception to the solution and discuss why an idea might be accepted or rejected by the target audience. The final step was to list resources through which the proposed solution could be widely spread.

On the process and how it helped them arrive at their goal, Soorya says, “They initially split us into five groups and assigned each of the groups a mentor. Over the two days of the event, all of the twenty teams learnt so much about how a small change actually had the power to change lives. My team “The Crafty Composters” developed our product, an easy-to-make compact composter.”

After going through the entire process, Srinidhi Sudarsan, 13, of  Chettinad Harishree Vidyalayam says, “Only now I understand the importance of asking myself why someone would criticize my idea and how to make them appreciate it. I learnt three important rules to be followed while sharing: Don’t defend, Don’t assume, Don’t direct. All three of which I would normally overlook.”

Once filtered through the trigger mapping process, the teams prototyped a solution. They had the option of choosing kits designed by ReapBenefit or build a solution from scratch. The mentors helped direct the teams towards a viable course of action that would enable them to complete the challenge in the specified time frame.

I love problem solving, I have had ideas but no solid platform for its execution. Later when I finally find out more about it- “poof,” the idea’s gone. I have learnt a lot from this hackathon which was truly a golden opportunity to explore more problems and arrive at solutions. Our team, “Water Warriors,” built a prototype of a grey water dispenser that solves the problem of water wastage in the bathroom while bathing and washing hands. However upon further investigation, I realized that a grey water dispenser can be a solution to multiple problems that we face in daily life” – Srinidhi Sudarshan, Chettinad Harishree Vidyalayam

Looking ahead

According to organisers, the event aimed to ‘activate public problem-solving skills among young citizens, such as data orientation, critical thinking, community collaboration and entrepreneurship.’ The idea was to instill civic consciousness and spread the message that solutions must emerge at the local level and be scaled up in order to be effective.

The participants will now be onboarded to ReapBenefit’s mentorship program on the Solve Ninja platform. They will receive guidance from experts on how best to implement the ideas that they have come up with at the hackathon.

The winners of the hackathon were a team that devised alternative mosquito repellants using orange peels and the one that sought to minimise food waste in their cafeteria. The two teams will receive a seed capital of Rs. 10,000/ and Rs. 5,000/ respectively and the prototypes incubated by mentors at the Industrial Design Centre (IDC), IIT-Bombay.

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About Aruna Natarajan 183 Articles
Aruna is a freelance writer and former Associate Editor at Citizen Matters. She has a BA in Economics and a PG Diploma in Journalism. She has also worked in a think-tank on waste management policy and with a non-profit in sport for development. She writes on civic issues, governance, waste, commute and urban policy. She tweets at @aruna_n29.