A whiteboard with several sticky notes stuck to it.

3 Questions with Andrew Hassan on Hacking COVID-19

| 5 Minute Read
Corporate Partnerships
UNLEASH | Innovation
Andrew Hassan reflects on the potential of virtual collaboration for solving intractable challenges and describes his hackathon team’s journey from problem to potential solution.

As Lead Scale Partner for the UNLEASH Global Innovation Lab, Chemonics was excited to organize and participate in a recent hackathon for UNLEASH alumni living in the GMT-4 time zone. The GMT-4 “hack” was one of six simultaneous hackathons that gathered 350 innovative thinkers from around the world to address challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

1. Due to their high-touch, collaborative nature, hackathons – and innovation labs like UNLEASH – are often hosted as in-person events. How did UNLEASH and its partners bring the innovation process to life in a virtual environment, and what did you take away from the experience?


I think most people who have participated in a design sprint or hackathon equate the experience with a physical space filled with Post-it® notes as far as the eye can see. The challenge is: How do you replicate that experience solely through digital mediums? Throughout the weekend, my team used Slack for communicating with the hackathon organizers and coordinating consultations with the subject-matter experts who were on hand to assist. The organizers used Zoom to host the morning meeting and the end-of-day presentations for the teams in their respective time zone cohort. Facebook Live and YouTube were used to broadcast the pitches to the public. The teams then split into separate Zoom breakout rooms so that team members could connect with one another. My team chose to use Google Drive to develop our pitch slide deck in real time and share resources. We also used Miro, an online collaborative whiteboard platform that donated 300 licenses to participants for the weekend, to brainstorm and develop our solution. Miro took the place of all of those Post-it® notes!

What I took away from this digital experience is that collaboration and design thinking can happen outside the confines of four walls. My team members and I now have a level of comfort with these digital tools, which can incentivize co-creation even after we’ve left the “workshop.” I’ve seen enthusiasm waver after participants depart a physical space because within that space they are consumed by the challenge at hand. In a sense, the same high level of engagement that my team achieved during the hack can be more easily replicated as the mediums we used are still readily available. This sets us up to continue our efforts to further refine our solution. My team has met four times since the end of March!

What I took away from this digital experience is that collaboration and design thinking can happen outside the confines of four walls.

2. Speaking of your team, how did you decide which problem you were going to create a solution for, particularly when the overarching problem is so complex?


Initially, I wanted to address the rise in domestic violence due to the unfortunate reality that some women and children are forced to be sequestered in a home with their abuser. Due to the mix of insights, experiences, and backgrounds of participants within my time zone, however, I was placed on a team assembled to work on unemployment. In the UNLEASH lab, it’s best practice to work on a challenge for which you can gather the most first-hand insight to zero in on the root of a problem. Two of my teammates were frustrated by the unemployment limbo they were thrown into with their summer employers putting internships on hold until the conclusion of the COVID-19 pandemic. Given my teammates’ proximity to the issue — sticking to the issue of unemployment as a result of stay-at-home orders — I felt comfortable and energized to work on this topic.

We started with exercises within UNLEASH’s problem-framing phase of the innovation process and articulated the friction within unemployment that we wanted to resolve. Why are highly skilled workers being left in the lurch when their skills can be useful in meeting the challenges brought on by COVID-19? We then moved on to the ideation stage, identifying possible solutions with the end user – highly skilled workers – in mind. In identifying a solution for their problem though, my team repeatedly hit roadblocks as we realized the service we were designing was nothing more than a temp agency that would be operational under the huge assumption that we would not saturate the labor market of employers who were still hiring in the time of quarantine. We returned to the problem-framing stage. I began to think about the inspiring stories of small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) who were pivoting their business operations and providing new product and service offerings to meet COVID-19 needs within their communities. Instead of acting as a liaison between unemployed skilled labor and employers across numerous sectors, we began to think about how we might be able to help local SMBs keep their businesses open by helping them adapt to support the need for COVID-19 essential commodities and services in their communities. By keeping SMBs operational, an outcome would effectively be combatting underutilization and unemployment. We spent the remainder of the weekend building a prototype of our solution, Adapter, a non-profit emergency response tech platform that rapidly helps SMB owners identify if and how they can adapt their business operations to support efforts in the COVID-19 crisis. Adapter matches SMB’s self-identified resources with COVID-19 commodity or service needs in their local community.

UNLEASH's innovation process
UNLEASH’s innovation process

3. What were some other COVID-19-related problems that hackathon solutions addressed? What happens now?


The hackathon tackled topics such as social distancing, homeschooling, supply chain efficiencies and health commodity procurement, misinformation, and mental health. For example, a solution called Keep it Moving! would integrate into existing navigation applications and recommend alternative routes or forms of transportation for essential workers who might be reliant on public transport but who need to avoid crowded public spaces to reduce the risk of transmitting or contracting COVID-19. Breathe Easy would allow for the continuance of outdoor recreation activities by using mobile data to determine the population density of public spaces and assigning a social distancing score.

Another example is Keep ‘Em Buzy, which aggregates, validates, and provides open source educational content from around the world through a single platform to help parents now responsible for home-schooling and managing more of their children’s time and activity at home.

Following the hack, UNLEASH is supporting participating teams by providing information about COVID-19-specific partnering and funding opportunities to help them pursue implementation and scaling of their solutions. Fortunately, we can tap into the UNLEASH alumni network for support, and the UNLEASH Secretariat and partners are helping to make connections with subject-matter experts and to identify possible team members where possible. Alumni also can submit their solutions to UNLEASH+, the UNLEASH Global Innovation Lab’s annual pre-acceleration program supported by Chemonics. Through UNLEASH+, teams receive the tools and support to develop a comprehensive business model and plan, positioning them for funding and partnership opportunities after the lab. Ultimately, it is up to the UNLEASH alumni who participated in the hackathon, as well as other passionate young leaders around the world, to pursue solutions to challenges facing their communities during this unprecedented time.

Check out the solutions submitted by participants around the world via the UNLEASH Solutions Airtable.

Posts on the blog represent the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of Chemonics.

About Andrew Hassan

Andrew Hassan was formerly a senior associate on the Innovation at Scale Team in the Innovation, Data, and Outreach Department at Chemonics.