A swarm of locusts descends on the lush vegetation of Samburu National Reserve in Kenya
The nations of East Africa are enduring an invasion of desert locusts, which are threatening food security and economic activity in areas like Samburu National Reserve in Kenya. Addressing the impact of the swarms on food security was one of the challenges presented to INSPIRE Hackathon participants. Credit: iStock.com/Jennifer Watson

Data journalist Winnie Kamau knew she wanted to join the desert locust hackathon team after her friend shared video of the locust devastation in her childhood home of Meru, Kenya.

“We know that there’s a global pandemic that has taken over the world right now, and we are all fighting an unseen enemy. But in East Africa and the Horn of Africa, we are also fighting an enemy that we can see.”

“That made me think, ‘Wow, this is coming closer [to] home,’” said Kamau, who now lives in Nairobi. The practicality of working on a project that could directly help Kenyan farmers—and others—made her more curious about the opportunity. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, East Africa (especially Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia) is currently facing an unprecedented threat to its food security because of locust swarms.

Coming up with ways to help farmers during locust swarms was one of the challenges for this year’s INSPIRE Hackathon, an annual event dedicated to solving problems around the globe with open data, volunteered geographic information, and citizen observations.

Kamau’s team, which ended up winning, used imagery from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 and -2 satellites to map and study the effects of desert locust swarms.

“We know that there’s a global pandemic that has taken over the world right now, and we are all fighting an unseen enemy. But in East Africa and the Horn of Africa, we are also fighting an enemy that we can see,” Kamau said during a presentation on 6 May.

Virtual Hackathon for a Sustainable Africa

In 2019, the INSPIRE Hackathon was held in Nairobi, with more than 200 participants. This year’s hackathon was supposed to have been hosted in Kampala, Uganda, but with recent lockdown orders associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, an in-person hackathon just wasn’t possible.

However, moving the event online didn’t seem to deter participants, said hackathon organizer Bente Lilja Bye. Frequent webinars helped participants get to know each other and share ideas. Webinars also helped the hackathon recruit even more participants, with some participants joining multiple teams, Lilja Bye said.

Kamau actually preferred the virtual format. Instead of dealing with the hassle of airports, hotel reservations, and jet lag, not to mention the limited time of an in-person event, the virtual format “[gave] us more time and space to be able to be more creative,” Kamau said.

Other hackathon attendees ranged from students to big-data experts. Each team was required to make use of freely available Earth observation data to approach challenges like maintaining food security, balancing open land use and transportation infrastructure, anticipating ways climate change might affect agriculture, and helping farmers plan for and mitigate devastating locust swarms. Each team was provided a mentor, an expert to consult on whatever issue they were trying to solve.

Although the hackathon is over now, Kamau and her teammates still meet regularly. They’re even publishing their report with the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition initiative, an INSPIRE Hackathon partner that supports open-data efforts around the globe.

Both Kamau and Lilja Bye stressed the importance of a hackathon-style event in bringing people together to solve problems.

“I think the common denominator is, you have a concentrated work on something, just to solve something, identify a problem and solve something,” Lilja Bye said.

—JoAnna Wendel (@JoAnnaScience), Science Writer


Wendel, J. (2020), Hackathon participants solve global problems—from home, Eos, 101, https://doi.org/10.1029/2020EO145494. Published on 12 June 2020.

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