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Bringing innovation to the humanitarian sector

Setting the scene

With the need for humanitarian aid growing rapidly, and finance in short supply, it’s clear that radical innovation is required in the humanitarian sector. To make the delivery of aid more efficient and transparent, it’s vital that people in need are able to communicate what type of help is required, as well as when and where it’s needed.

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“Hackathon for Humanitarian Aid gives a voice to people in need.”

Anton Koonstra Public sector consulting, partner, PwC Netherlands

How we helped

To help create this capability, PwC Netherlands teamed up with the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs in February 2017 to organise a Hackathon for Humanitarian Aid. Supported by United Nations organisations UNHCR and UNOCHA, Google, and Leiden University’s Centre for Innovation, the event brought together 75 programmers, data analysts, policymakers, aid experts and resettled refugees. 
Divided into multidisciplinary teams, the participants worked together for 36 hours straight on 12 concrete ideas using a rapid prototyping format. This approach created a unique opportunity to bring diverse types of expertise together in one place and design prototypes with direct user feedback.
The result was some stunning innovation – with the judges surprising everyone by announcing two winners. One was ‘Team Seeing Hunger’, which developed a prototype of a chatbot that enables humanitarian organisations to process the mass of social media messages they receive every day. Gathering and processing this data gives aid workers a detailed overview of where problems are occurring, and of what type of aid is needed in which areas. 
The other winner, ‘Team Dreamcatcher’, developed a revolutionary prototype that enables people located in areas without connectivity to report anonymously on issues they’re facing in times of crisis. Using other people’s mobile appliances through mesh networking, the prototype enables reports to be encrypted before being sent to the humanitarian response community. 


In May 2017, the winning teams were invited to go to the UNHCR headquarters in Geneva to pitch their ideas to a panel of influential stakeholders. In September 2017, Team Dreamcatcher returned to Geneva to pitch at the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Both teams truly impressed the UNHCR, resulting in its innovation team undertaking further exploration of the possibilities their prototypes have opened up. 

Together, the Hackathon and the results it has delivered provide a clear demonstration of the added value that springs from innovative and collaborative ways of working – and of how the outputs can exceed people’s imagination and expectations, and make a real difference for crisis-hit communities.