Fast Company

Hackers For Egypt Advocate For A Better Democracy Through Technology

Post-revolution Egypt is in a state of flux overlooked by outsiders. New political parties are forming while various factions hustle for power. As Egypt gears up for free elections, tech-savvy geeks are betting that their projects will have a major impact on how people will vote.

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Post-revolution Egypt is in a state of flux overlooked by outsiders. New political parties are forming while various factions hustle for power and the Muslim Brotherhood hovers in the background. With Egypt's future wide open, tech-savvy activists are openly speculating on what will happen next. A combination of academics and entrepreneurs recently worked with Egyptian activists on a “Hackathon for Egypt” that provides some interesting--and fascinating--clues.

Participants in the hackathon were organized by Cloud to Street, a project dedicated to aiding Egyptian activists through technology. Cloud to Street is headed up by a loose group of primarily Canadian scholars and diplomats. Approximately 75 programmers took part, as well as Egyptian activists who attended both in person and via teleconference.

Most of the tech created at the conference was aimed at Egypt's upcoming elections, which civil-society activists have been obsessively monitoring. The upcoming vote is expected to be the first free election for a leader in Egypt's long, long history. Elections are expected to occur in October or November; the ruling military junta has been unclear on the exact date.

But the complicating rub for programmers was the special circumstances surrounding Egypt. According to one of the participants in the hackathon, veteran Egyptian activist Ahmed Salah, applications under development for Egypt needed to be both “free” and “secure.” High--or even minimal costs--would not fly with Egypt's primarily unemployed activists, while the likelihood of future persecution makes absolute security a must.

The conference's most intriguing result was a platform for crowdsourcing the new Egyptian constitution. The platform, which appears to have drawn inspiration from a similar project in Tunisia, allows users to simultaneously browse constitutional texts from multiple countries, propose articles and ideas online and to collaborate on compiling the ideas into a workable text. Owing to Egypt's special circumstances, the platform also contains extensive provisions for off-computer use--many Egyptians simply don't have regular access to either a computer or the Internet.

Other projects worked on at the hackathon included a web platform for training Egyptian election monitors and an interactive tool that allows voters to explore the policies of various parliamentary candidates. While projects such as these may seem commonplace in the North American and Western European markets, they are a foray into uncharted waters for Egypt. For instance, one participant urged the installation of Tor-equipped Firefox browsers on computers at Internet cafes in case of political emergency. Fast Company recently ran a piece on the use of one of Tor's commercial competitors, Hotspot Shield, during the Egyptian revolution.

Meanwhile, Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who played a crucial part in the Egyptian uprising, was honored with the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award by Caroline Kennedy this past Monday.

[Image: Flickr user Simona Scolari]

For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Email Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, here.

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