Flush With Ideas: Hackathon Tackles Ghana’s Toilet Troubles

Photograph courtesy of Ideo

Attendees of Ideo's sanitation hackathon collaborated on tools for highlighting Ghana's open defecation issues.

During a hackathon last week at the San Francisco offices of design firm Ideo, there were laptops, whiteboards, pizza and beer. Oh, and photos of feces on the walls.

The 40 software developers who attended the Hack Sanitation event were tasked with building Web tools for highlighting the toilet troubles of Ghana. In the West African country, 19 percent of people defecated openly in 2010 due to a lack of access to bathroom facilities, according to a study by the World Health Organization and UNICEF.

To drive the point home, Ideo’s walls were decorated with scenic photos from Ghana showing streets and beaches littered with plastic bags full of excrement.

Ideo.org, a nonprofit spin-off of the design studio known for its work with Apple and Research in Motion, started focusing on Ghana’s fecal problem after Jocelyn Wyatt, the organization’s executive director, took a trip to the city of Kumasi two years ago. She was taken aback by the sight of feces “all over the streets,” she recalled.

Last year, the organization tapped the design experts at Ideo to develop a cheap toilet that could be installed in homes there. The pilot program, in which professionals empty the canisters three times a week, began with 100 families in March. That project eventually led to the two-day hackathon, where volunteers were asked to brainstorm and build prototype software to raise awareness of the health risks associated with open defecation.

“We were so into it at that point that we wanted to keep making progress,” Wyatt said. “Hackathons create a level of excitement that drives continued engagement.”

In the technology world, Ideo isn’t alone in tackling this issue. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates held a toilet fair in August to showcase the developments in third-world sanitation funded by his foundation. He gave first prize to the inventors of a solar-powered toilet.

Ken Guzik,  a user-experience engineer at VMware, said he attended Ideo’s event because he was inspired by Gates’s recent initiative. His group at the hackathon developed a service for sending free text messages from a mobile phone about where open defecation takes place. This crowd-sourced data could give people a better understanding of how prevalent the problem is.

Another group created a Facebook application that could post statistics about where public poop can be found, along with pictures. A third group built the infrastructure to tie it all together, as well as a website that maps the information.

When the day finally came to an end, Robin Bigio, Ideo.org’s senior designer, gave each person a parting gift: a roll of toilet paper.

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