Montreal Hackers Compete for Refugee Centre Hackathon Glory

BlocHacks Aims to Aid Social Issues with Technology

Tech-savvy teams competed in the JMSB building to see who could come up with the best application that would support the UNHCR’s efforts to protect refugees. Photo Joseph Coppolino

Montreal hackers, the Refugee Centre and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees joined forces to improve the lives of refugees in the first annual BlocHacks, an all-night hackathon, on Saturday.

Organized by DevBloc, a division of the Refugee Centre, over 250 of Montreal’s young tech minds descended upon the John Molson School of Business to see who could come up with the best application that would support the UNHCR’s efforts to protect refugees—all in just 24 hours.

The Refugee Centre is a Concordia fee-levy group, and DevBloc is a “social innovation catalyst” that helps grow start-up businesses which focus on community building, supporting newcomers to Montreal and refugees. They are currently working on six projects which range from artificial intelligence apps to a custom hot sauce company.

The problem, or the hack as it is known, was brought to them by the UNHCR.” In 2016, over 824,000 Syrian Refugees were forced to flee Syria, overwhelming the organization. The teams were tasked with developing a way to track and update contact information on refugees as they moved from city to city.

By hosting the hackathon, executive director of the Refugee Centre Abdulla Daoud hoped to get the tech community thinking about how they can work with NGOs to solve major social issues and not just seek profits.

Photo Joseph Coppolino

“BlocHacks is a way to engage with young entrepreneurs and young tech-savvy people, and show them that they don’t have to only work on things like Snapchat or Instagram,” Daoud said.

“They can work on stuff like this, and this is much cooler.”

Denise Otis, protection officer at the UNHCR office in Montreal and one of five judges for the competition, said that NGOs dealing with humanitarian crises are slower to adopt new technology. Supporting BlocHacks is just one way to demonstrate how NGOs can benefit from tech based solutions, she said.

“I think we need to think beyond that and become a little more literate,” said Otis. “It is to the advantage of everyone.”

In the end, Team UNCH, composed of Marc Burns, Justine Gagnepain, Jason Gendreau, Morgan Reed, and Sam Watkinson, came out on top with their application connecting refugees with the UNHCR through an automated service which compelled them to update their information over the smartphone.

Photo Joseph Coppolino

Despite coming away with first place and wowing the crowd with a demo of their product, Team UNCH agreed that the challenges faced by the UNHCR and other organizations working to help refugees were truly overwhelming.

“We really want to thank them for all the great work they do out in the real world,” said Gendreau.

For Daoud, the event was a success. It wasn’t about discovering a perfect solution to the world’s current refugee crisis, but was about starting a conversation around socially innovative uses of technology.

“We have engaged over 250 people in a way for them to envision what we are envisioning,” said Daoud. “And that’s the most important thing.”