Computing Applications

Cuban-Americans Hack For Information Freedom

Young men at a Miami-based hackathon for Cuba.
The goal of most developers at the Hackathon was to enable Internet-like capabilities, like email and search, via mobile phone applications.

When you can’t afford or find an Internet connection, and you don’t own a cellphone, and the government is looking over your electronic shoulder, you may have to become pretty creative in your communications techniques. Such creativity is just what a recent "hackathon" in Miami aimed to foster in Cuba.

On Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, information technologists and entrepreneurs from south Florida gathered at terminals and mobile devices to develop smartphone applications for Cuba, often called "the island of the disconnected." The Hackathon for Cuba was organized by Roots of Hope (Raíces de Esperanza), a nonprofit network of 4,000 students and young professionals who work to empower youth in Cuba through connection, technology, and exchange. The event was supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation .

"Cuba is the country with the lowest Internet penetration in the western hemisphere, so we focus specifically on communication between Cubans and between Cubans and the outside world," said Natalia Martinez, chief innovation and technology officer at Roots of Hope. "This can include anything from SMS-specific services to apps that help Cubans engage with the world through cellphones."

The International Telecommunication Union in Geneva reported last June that 2.8 million people in Cuba, roughly 26% of the population, used the Internet in 2012, ranking the country 79th in the world. Most of those users in Cuba do not have regular or affordable Internet access. "Places like Internet cafés are very few, highly censored, and cost $5 an hour in a country where the average monthly salary is $20," Martinez said.

The goal of most of the developers at the Hackathon was to enable Internet-like capabilities, such as email and search, via mobile phone applications like Short Message Service (SMS)-based texting and Twitter. Twelve teams competed in the Hackathon, and the following prototypes were judged winners at the end of the day-and-a-half-long event:

  • Apretaste, an online marketplace similar to Craigslist that allows users to purchase and sell goods and services directly from one another. Apretaste is completely functional via e-mail, making it accessible to the 60% of Cuba’s population with email access by telephone.
  • Cuba Direct, an email-based application that allows users to access Google searches, Wikipedia articles, and Twitter updates without needing a connection to the Internet.
  • Raspberry PI, an existing credit-card-sized, ARM-Linux-based computer, was adapted to allow people to create web-access peer networks across small geographic distances in Cuba.

The winners declined to be interviewed for this story, some citing fear of government reprisals against relatives in Cuba.

"The purpose of the Hackathon was to build solutions that are specific to the Cuban context, and which adhere to the legal framework of both the U.S. and Cuba," Martinez said. "It is of the utmost importance to design technological solutions that keep in mind a context that has different obstacles and limitations than the ones we face."

The hackathon was part of an effort launched by the Knight Foundation 18 months ago "to better connect and propel the emerging community of entrepreneurs," said Matt Haggman, Miami program director for the Foundation. These efforts include the creation of physical and virtual spaces for innovators to meet, and the sponsoring of hands-on technology development events such as hackathons. Unlike some other organizations with similar goals, the Knight program is geared specifically to groups or start-ups with potentially high growth, and to help innovators build technologies that can scale, Haggman said.

Haggman acknowledged whole new products or services are unlikely to be developed in a one-day hackathon. "The big thing is getting people focused on things," he said. "The idea is to build social connections, then over 10 hours or so, to begin to build something."

The hackathon was intended to augment and speed up technology efforts already underway on the island, Martinez said. "Cubans are increasingly coming into the digital age, and programming and design in the island is complex and growing," she said.

Gary Anthes is a technology writer and editor based in Arlington, VA.

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