Innovation a key trait of young tech talent in the Middle East

Kassem Wridan of Bloomberg says hackathons show the wealth of young talent in the region

Tags: BloombergHackathonInnovationUnited Arab Emirates
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Innovation a key trait of young tech talent in the Middle East Students in the UAE show knowledge and innovation, says Wridan.
By  Kassem Wridan Published  February 21, 2019

When I arrived in Abu Dhabi ready to mentor university students who were participating in the 2018 Annual New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) International Hackathon for Social Good in the Arab World, I was surprised to find that I learned as much from the students as they did from me. Just when I thought we hit a roadblock, they'd say ‘Oh, we can just use this new API.' I was very impressed by their knowledge and innovation in approaching challenges they faced.

The NYUAD International Hackathon is an event with a difference. Bringing together 90 computer science students representing 30 countries, the annual event draws on the U.A.E. and wider Middle East's vibrant and ever-growing population of ambitious young tech talent to design and develop innovative solutions for social good in the Arab World.

The event was based around pre-determined themes ranging from healthcare to education, and placed participants into groups based upon a questionnaire they had each completed beforehand - a unique structure in the world of hackathons. My colleague Mark Wood and I were invited as a judge and mentor respectively - alongside peers from other leading tech companies and academic institutions, including IBM, Facebook, Microsoft, Google, and MIT.

Tasked with improving student participation in schools that are based in refugee camps, my team, named Insahny انصحني (AdviseMe), prototyped the use of emotion reading artificial intelligence software and other interactive technologies to provide teachers with live, in-class feedback. This would then improve how they engage with their pupils.

One issue the hackathon tackled was that of fake medicine in Egypt, where 30 percent of drugs are counterfeit, compared to just one percent in the United States. One of the hackathon's joint-winning teams, Dawa دواء (Medicine), looked to tackle this problem using a secure blockchain for pharmaceutical distribution. The other winning team, Boosala بوصلة (Compass), proposed using facial recognition to identify missing people in refugee camps using online and broadcast video footage. I was impressed by how both teams developed innovative solutions to the challenges they were faced with. 

The experience of pulling together each team member's individual work to create the end-product was the biggest challenge, but one that parallels my work at Bloomberg. We were a group of nine - six students and three mentors. Integrating all the different pieces created by such a big team was the toughest part by far. In this respect, the hackathon was definitely a big learning experience for me, and it was the same for the students. When I asked them what they'd learned following the event, everyone said teamwork.

The event's success is a tribute to the growing abundance of tech talent in the U.A.E. and Middle East. It's clear that the area's reputation for this kind of technical knowledge has improved substantially. When I was growing up in the U.A.E., I'd never even heard of a hackathon, so to see this not only take place in the Middle East but also witness firsthand the innovative solutions young talent come up with is highly encouraging. With Bloomberg invited to take part once again in this year's event, it'll be interesting to see what the region's young talent come up with.

Based in London, Kassem Wridan is a Bloomberg mobile software engineer. He has built his career as a software engineer on Bloomberg's iOS platform team, but also finds time to mentor the next generation of tech talent at hackathons and campus events across the UK - and now, in the U.A.E.

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