Canada shines in global hacking competitions to address COVID-19 business challenges

When COVID-19 virtually shut down the world, many organizations wondered what they could do to help. Some donated money or resources, but for some, their support, in part, took the approach of helping others contribute. They sponsored or participated in hackathons to develop apps to assist those in need of support.

Call for Code

The organizers of the annual Call for Code hackathon always address social issues. This year’s main theme is climate change, but organizers added a second track to its program for developers building open source technology solutions that address three main areas applicable to the current pandemic: crisis communication during an emergency, ways to improve remote learning, and how to inspire cooperative local communities.

The rationale was that the COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the shortcomings in current systems, so activating the more than 24 million developers worldwide could do some real good. The COVID track offered two options: early submission of apps in April, with the top three recognized apps to receive assistance from IBM mentors to allow quick deployment, and the main competition with a final submission date of July 31; winners will be announced in October (early COVID-19 submissions remain eligible). The grand prize winner receives $200,000 USD, solution implementation and opportunities for mentorship and investment in the solution. First and second runners up receive $25,000, and third and fourth runners-up get $10,000. A separate University edition offers cash prizes and opportunities for jobs at IBM.

The early winners, from India, the United States, and Canada, were announced during a livestream in May by Bob Lord, senior vice-president, cognitive applications, blockchain and ecosystems at IBM, founding partner for Call for Code, and Chelsea Clinton, vice-chair of the Clinton Foundation.

Salman Alam of CovidImpact. CovidImpact is an application targeted to small business owners to help them weather the economic fallout from COVID-19. It includes a Smart Small Business Care Bundle that fully harnesses the power of IBM Watson Tone Analyzer and IBM’s ILOG CPLEX | Source: YouTube

Vancouver-based team CovidImpact’s app was one of the top three. Members Ali Serag El-Din, Alberto Cevallos, Salman Alam, Bolat Khojayev, and Talshyn Bolatova, who met as undergrads at the University of British Columbia, developed a small business care bundle using IBM Watson Tone Analyzer linguistic analysis and the IBM ILOG CPLEX decision-making rules engine that forecasts risk levels for businesses and curates personalized programs and tips to reduce oncoming financial threats. It also provides smart news, a real-time list of sentiment analysis-parsed news articles relevant to small business owners from all major outlets, and provides an economic impact heatmap that displays areas where government business aid isn’t reaching and notifies officials so they can direct aid to specific regions or industries.

Team lead Ali Serag El-Din, a hackathon veteran who is chief technology officer at startup fintech Fostrum Financial Technologies (teammate Salman Alam is founder and chief operating officer), said in an interview that the genesis of the app came from hearing from users about the issues they were facing as COVID-19 continued to shut down the economy. At one of the company’s Sandbox Thursdays, where everyone works on their own passion projects, the idea came up.

“None of us are first-line responders but we know how to code,” he said. “What can we do to help? And CovidImpact started from that. What it is at its core is a small business care bundle that equips business owners and founders with everything that they need to immunize their business to COVID-19 and its after-effects. We got together with several other of our friends that we met while at the University of British Columbia and we just put together a solution.”

The tool is still evolving but is up and running at, and the team has since had offers from other countries who would like to localize it for their own environments. But the team is not resting on its laurels.

IBM Canada vice-president, data and AI development and director of IBM Canada Labs Steve Astorino said that IBM is helping in a few ways. “We partner up with them, and we provide support and help and mentorship, but also we provide free services for them to use with our technology,” he said. “We’re essentially granting free access to over 80,000 patents that they can leverage to develop their solution. It’s pretty exciting. So in this particular case, they’re using some of our Watson technology to be able to do sentiment analysis and understand the data that’s been published by government agencies to help small businesses.”

“The single most important thing we’re trying to do now is just scale it and grow it,” Serag said. “We’re trying to find as many developers as possible that that have free time, as well as even people from arts backgrounds or social sciences backgrounds that want to contribute. We are trying to get as many people involved as possible.”

We vs Virus

Unlike Call for Code, SAP Canada’s We vs Virus Hackathon was a spontaneous effort inspired by a similar event in Germany; it took just over a week from initial concept to completion.

The instigator of the idea, SAP Canada chief operating officer Sam Masri, explained that he got a text from a former colleague in Germany late one night telling him about a hackathon seeking solutions to challenges arising from COVID-19 that he’d just participated in (and made the top 20). Masri said he went to bed, but couldn’t sleep, wondering why they weren’t doing something like that here. He texted his boss, Andy Canham, the managing director of SAP Canada, that night.

The next morning, a Friday, the two got together and agreed that it was bigger than just SAP. Canham immediately contacted the CEOs of Microsoft Canada, IBM Canada, Accenture Canada, PwC Canada, Deloitte Canada, Capgemini, and EY Canada asking if they’d like to join the initiative. They all said yes. A couple of days of planning and a call to action later, they had 700 people registered. The hackathon proper started on a Friday and concluded on Sunday with 105 apps entered. Each of the eight companies provided a judge.

As for prizes:  “The biggest gift that we can give them is that we make sure that their concept gets deployed,” Masri said. “We’re in the process now of finding a private-public partnership on this thing, because we need someone to administer the concepts that will get deployed. We’re in active discussions with Minister Bain’s policy director right now. Andy (Canham) met with the minister. And we’re trying to see what other private partnerships we can have to try and deploy some of them.” All participating companies are also looking at ways the concepts could be deployed within their own global organizations.

Microsoft judge and general manager modern workplace Jordan Sheridan was amazed at the production quality of the video submissions, especially since entrants did their work after the end of the day for their normal jobs. And, he noted, although participants were mainly from large organizations, their solutions addressed issues affecting smaller businesses and individuals. He was also impressed at how they put aside corporate competitiveness.

“The intellectual capital and the bright ideas that exist in all of these organizations for good, the speed at which those organizations were able to put aside anything that resembled competitiveness between them, and work together towards a common cause, that that to me was humbling,” he said. “We say these things, and we talk about the culture of our companies, but to see it in practice, and just how quickly that everybody agreed to work together for a common good and a common goal was, was pretty incredible to me.”

The top 5 submissions approached the issues from many directions. Team Hungry Heroes, for example, looked at ways to make sure front-line workers are fed, and Team Aspire provided a way to match workers with employers who need them.

Teams stepped outside their comfort zones to succeed. “We are Apple developers. Our team was comfortable building apps,” noted Erin McClennan of Hungry Heroes, whose day job is lead of Apple IBM Studios. “We definitely pushed ourselves to make sure (the video) presented the concept the way we really want it to be seen.”

Added teammate Lucy Liu, “And taking us out of our comfort zone to come up with ideas and things that we would do that we wouldn’t normally do, that was part of the fun, so I don’t think I wouldn’t change it too much.”

Participation was also a great way to meet new people. Eric Lee, part of a team from SAP, was not an original member of the group from SAP d-shop (developer shop) – he works in quality management – but when he found out about the hackathon he reached out and was offered a spot. And while the app the team developed (it reports which stores around you have stock of essential items) wasn’t one of the winners, it garnered enough interest that it’s being submitted to another SAP social initiative, One Billion Lives.

“We were all blown away by how much people cared and wanted to make a difference,” Masri said. “I do think that this pandemic has humanized the world a bit more and we’re going to see much more of that empathy going forward, I hope forever.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Lynn Greiner
Lynn Greiner
Lynn Greiner has been interpreting tech for businesses for over 20 years and has worked in the industry as well as writing about it, giving her a unique perspective into the issues companies face. She has both IT credentials and a business degree.

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