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'Pakathon' Taps Pakistani Diaspora's Best and Brightest for Smart Solutions

NEW YORK — The Kimmel Center, part of the campus of New York University, played host late last month to Pakathon New York, the local branch of a hackathon event launched in 16 cities in the U.S. and Pakistan that's intended to develop innovative apps for Pakistan. The winning team from each city goes on to compete in a final event to be held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston this Saturday, October 11, for a $10,000 prize.

About 150 people registered for Pakathon New York alone. From Friday, September 26 through Sunday the 28th, participants hung out in the Kimmel Center lobby in kurti, jeans, blazers, and sneakers, toting cellphones, laptops, and Google Glasses. Ideas were generated in five different streams: education, health, retail, human rights, and finance.

In a hackathon, a group of techies — generally programmers, engineers, social media experts — come together to build something. But in this case, coming up with solutions specifically for Pakistan meant that the teams had to have a good understanding of the country in order to hack its most pressing challenges.

"You need a range of skill sets to be able to come up with an idea that would actually work on the ground," said Amna Khawar, part of the organizing team for the New York event. Even though the event was focused on Pakistan, a number of non-Pakistanis were participating as well. "Pakathon is not just limited to Pakistanis. The outsiders bring different perspectives, which are equally important," added Khawar.

The event kicked off on the evening of Friday, September 26, with close to 100 people in attendance. Teams were formed according to the areas of interest. A group of professionals who had signed up as mentors — entrepreneurs, lawyers, and human rights experts — could be seen walking about offering advice to the teams on their ideas. Other mentors based in Pakistan communicated with the teams via Skype.

Within 48 hours, each idea had to be polished and presented to the judges in a 10-minute pitch. The ideas ranged from a smart stethoscope to a fact-checking web platform aimed at promoting journalistic integrity.

The judges evaluated each idea not just for its technological sophistication, but also for its need and applicability in Pakistan. For the participants, that meant a test of how connected they were to Pakistan. "We all want to solve the world's problems," said Tina Israni, one of the judges, and the CEO of Zoraab, an online men's accessories store. "But you can only solve one aspect of it. The ideas have to be really focused."

Pakathon is the brainchild of young duo Asad Badruddin and Zheela Qaiser, one a technologist from Tufts and the other an entrepreneur and a graduate of Yale. Held in Boston in 2013, the first Pakathon attracted over a hundred participants from universities in Pakistan and from across the United States. "Within the diaspora there is a huge desire to do more and give back, and this could be an avenue for it," said Batool Hassan, director of business development at Acumen, one of the three judges on the panel. But it is also important, she said, to make sure you really understand who your customer is.

Bilal Allawala, a 34-year old software developer and a competitor at the Pakathon New York event, had developed an idea for a program to facilitate education for children in poverty-stricken areas. "A big problem in Pakistan is education.” Allawala had been to Pakistan three times in the past seven years, visiting rural areas in the north where, he said, it helped to see firsthand how people are living.

But for a lot of the Pakistanis present at the event, staying in touch with home meant connecting through social media and news websites. "Usually in the morning I read the Pakistani news sites," said Sadaf Waheed, a 26-year-old consultant at an international audit firm. “Facebook is also a great source to keep up to date," she said.

For the non-Pakistani members, the event was a great way to learn more about the country. "What attracted me to this event is that there was a social change component to it," said Sze Chan, a 27-year-old entrepreneur, a native of Hong Kong, who was working on a human rights app. "Pakistan shares one of the most volatile borders with India," he said. "What happens there affects the rest of the world."

Two teams shared the top position for the New York event. Both tied for the top slot and will be attending this weekend's finale in Boston. One was SmartScope, a stethoscope designed to measure more than just a heartbeat, invaluable for health clinics and hospitals that have limited equipment for diagnosis.

The other team came up with the idea of an Uber app for women called DriveHer, a cab service for women with female drivers. The creators of DriveHer are a team of collaborators from India and Pakistan. "We dabbled with this idea a year or two ago, we were not sure if it was feasible or if it would be received well,” said Delkash Shahriarian. “We are super-excited we won. This can be a stepping stone to bigger things.”

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