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Promoting Internet Freedom Through Tech: RFE/RL Hosts Hackathons in Tbilisi and Prague


Participants in the 2021 RFE/RL Hackathon in Tbilisi collaborated to develop new ways to boost Internet freedom via tech.
Participants in the 2021 RFE/RL Hackathon in Tbilisi collaborated to develop new ways to boost Internet freedom via tech.

Designers, coders and students from all over the world brainstormed and created innovative new ways to promote internet freedom through tech at RFE/RL’s second annual hackathons. Many participants came from places where press freedom is under fire, including Iran, Russia, Morocco, Belarus, Ukraine, and the countries of Central Asia.

Around 90 participants attended each hackathon, which were held on September 4-5 in Tbilisi, Georgia, and September 17-18 in Prague, Czech Republic. The hackathons provide a way for those working in technology industries to get a firmer grasp on the challenges journalists face and work together to build solutions, said Adil Gherib, senior product manager at RFE/RL.

“Most of the programmers or designers don't have a knowledge of the theme, which is internet freedom,” Gherib said. “The idea of the conferences was to learn about that and then build as up-to-date products as possible.”

The Tbilisi hackathon, featured speakers from Impact Hub Tbilisi, MDI Armenia, Azerbaijan Internet Watch and more. It was the first full-scale, 24-hour hackathon RFE/RL has held in Georgia.

The 48-hour Prague hackathon was a hybrid event, starting with a conference and then a challenge for teams to come up with a product within 24 hours.

Guest speakers at the Prague event from the BBC, Google, Wikimedia Foundation and other organizations educated participants on topics including digital trends, artificial intelligence, geo-verification and data journalism. Thomas Rid, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins who testified before a U.S. Senate committee about Russian election interference in 2016, spoke about the history of disinformation. “Meeting speakers face-to-face brought a lot of value to the hackers,” Gherib said.

Political scientist Thomas Rid (screen), speaking with RFE/RL's Pete Baumgartner (r) and participants in the 2021 RFE/RL Hackathon in Prague
Political scientist Thomas Rid (screen), speaking with RFE/RL's Pete Baumgartner (r) and participants in the 2021 RFE/RL Hackathon in Prague

The first prize was awarded to a project pitched as a “Fiverr for Newsrooms.” This tool would provide access to a database of freelancers in countries with limited press freedom, creating a path to building non-physical newsrooms in places where RFE/RL is blocked, like Iran or Azerbaijan. The winners received free tickets to WebExpo 2021, a technology conference in Prague.

The runners-up included ideas to help journalists use artificial intelligence to track hashtags, find sources, or cross-check to clear social media noise. Other projects created solutions for securing reporting tools and devices.

Participants in the 2021 RFE/RL Hackathon in Prague brainstormed solutions to help journalists work online more safely and effectively.
Participants in the 2021 RFE/RL Hackathon in Prague brainstormed solutions to help journalists work online more safely and effectively.

RFE/RL journalists report in 23 countries across the world, often facing censorship, surveillance and unequal access to the internet. For example, authorities in Belarus restrict internet access and surveil citizens’ social media accounts, while the Russian government’s ongoing attempt to label RFE/RL and other independent media as “foreign agents” creates a hostile environment for reporters. By building awareness and engagement among outside stakeholders from the technology field, RFE/RL’s hackathons pave the way for solutions to such issues.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this was the first time in two years the hackathon could be held following RFE/RL’s inaugural hackathon in 2019.

In Tbilisi, the hackathon’s prize partners included WebExpo and the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs. The event partners were HubHub, Microsoft, ForSet, Sticker Mule and Impact Hub Tbilisi.

The Prague hackathon’s prize partners included Dell, WebExpo, Amazon Web Services, and Kiwi.com. The event partners were HubHub, Microsoft, Sticker Mule, Bellingcat, startupweekend, techstars, DataJournalism.com, StartupJobs, Prague Media Point, Advocacy Assembly and Transitions. Avast Foundation was a gold partner.

-- Molly Kruse

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