Fighting Faeces and Flies at Ghana Hackathon

Hackathons have brought software developers, programmers, and even venture capitalists together to collaborate intensely on a software project with a given data set over a short period of time – usually 2-5 days – since 1999. 

Currently, with the support of social entrepreneurs and do-gooders, hack-a-thons are not just for techies.  Instead, data sets are supplied for social problems like water distribution in India or energy efficient solutions in New York City or stopping the worldwide spread of Malaria or HIV/AIDs.

In November 2012, the social entrepreneurs at WATER AND SANITATION FOR THE URBAN POOR (WSUP) and gathered together sanitation experts, designers, coders, reformed engineers, storytellers, and citizens with knowledge of Ghana.  Why, you may ask?  To find a solution and ways to empower residents to fight open defecation in their Ghanaian neighborhoods.

Affectionately dubbed the ‘crap map’ project, approximately 50+ people gathered to talk about $hit and brainstorm potential strategies which, ideally, can lead to improved health and sanitation in Kumasi – an urban area of Ghana.  The project, funded in part by USAID, took as its point of departure the Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) approach which has worked well in rural environments.

With the growing access to mobile phones, it is not difficult to understand that there are more people in the developing world who have mobile phone access than access to safe, hygienic toilets.  The enlightened folks at and WSUP shared information about cultural norms in Kumasi.  They also provided resources for which CLTS strategies have worked in the past to solve the urban poop problem.  In their work with rural communities, trainers will demonstrate to villagers exactly how flies travel from a plate of faeces to a plate of food and the negative implications that has for public healh.

However, given the challenges of urban sprawl and population explosion, how can similar communications vehicles work to combat the spread of disease via faeces?  That’s the problem the hackers were given to solve as a data set.

Over 2 workdays, participants split into teams arranged so that unique skill sets were present for each group.  Wielding laptops and generating sticky notes to fill whiteboards, the hacker groups addressed the following issues:

  • Understanding: How can information about open defecation be presented in a way that drives action?
  • Collection: What are the ways information can be gathered about open defecation?
  • Action: What action can people undertake against open defecation?
  • Achievement: What needs to occur to create an open defecation-free neighborhood through collective action?

At the end of all the intense thinking and brainstorming, a prototype of a digital mobile platform with offline community-driven activities emerged.  The attendees dubbed the digital mobile platform “Clean Kumasi.”  Molly Norris of commented: “ Our concept centers on tracking the cleanliness of community landmarks in Kumasi, such as schools, churches and water sources.”

In Kumasi, the field team collaborated with student groups and community members to identify landmarks important to the community.  Posters were placed on site asking local residents to text information about open defecation at those landmarks.  Data collection uploads to a map and on the Facebook pages for each landmark.

With this process, the hope is that groups of self-selected community members who want to see the landmarks clean and waste-free will mobilize and stay mobilized to combat this public health issue.  Organizers would like the social networking to trigger face-to-face community meetings.  At the offline meetings, trained facilitators can galvanize grassroots action to create solutions for this vexing problem with the result being citizens pressuring government or the private sector to improve sanitation.  Implicit in this process is room for residents to self-organize and collaborate on solutions which make the most sense for their community.

Learn more about this unique social entrepreneurship project here:


About the Author

I am a soccer mom, musician, Beatles fanatic,dreamer, chocolate chip cookie maker, and passionate advocate and evangelist for cleantech and cleanweb causes, organizations, and companies that make the planet better in all ways.