For several years, I have cared a lot about helping protect the natural environment and strengthening communities that rely on it. In March of last year, my roommate Miguel Lachanski and I applied for a grant called the Davis Projects for Peace and our project, “Hack the Climate:Manila” was selected as the winner. For the project, we partnered with De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde, a prominent Philippine university, to host a climate change themed hackathon. For three days, environmental activists and computer programmers came together to build websites and mobile apps to facilitate climate change adaptation, mitigation, awareness, and conservation. The idea for this hackathon came initially because the most powerful Typhoon in Philippine history, Super Typhoon Haiyan, made landfall the same weekend as HackPrinceton 2013. HackPrinceton’s winning app, "What Would I Say," included a button in their application to donate money for Typhoon relief. It seemed that my roommate and I could use our technical skills to help more directly by organizing a hackathon with the explicit aim of mitigating or alleviating stresses caused by climate change.
As soon as school ended in May, I hopped on a plane to Manila. I stayed with the family of one of my mom’s Filipina friends in Malate, a working class neighborhood of Manila. Each morning at 6:30, I was woken up by a man shouting “Taho!!!!!!” which is a soft drink made of soy milk, boba, and copious quantities of corn syrup. It was too sweet for my liking, but everyone in the neighborhood seemed to enjoy it. One of the most startling aspects that I noticed were the throngs of people loitering on the streets at all times. From dawn to dusk, denizens from all walks of life went about their lives outside, including middle aged men bantering with one another, teens dancing to Rihanna’s latest pop hit, toddlers playing in a wholly unsupervised manner, as well as numerous pedicab drivers waiting for business. Many of those people simply lived on the street corners, slept under the night sky and possessed little more than the clothes on their backs. I’ve never seen poverty quite like that in my life.
Filipino cuisine has been the talk of noted foodies like Andrew Zimmern, who recently predicted that Filipino food is “going to be the next big thing.” Travel Channels’ Anthony Bourdain agreed, touting the signature dish sisig “a divine mosaic of pig parts.” I had a slightly different experience. I found that I did not enjoy Filipino food as much as I do Chinese, Japanese, Thai, or other East Asian cuisines. I am a big fan of spicy, peanutty, and tangy flavors; however Filipino food does not contain these powerful flavors. It is for that reason that I think there seem to be so few Filipino restaurants in the states (NYC has between twenty and twenty five Filipino restaurants, whereas Mercer county has more Chinese restaurants). And that’s not because there aren’t a lot of Filipinos in the US, in fact there are more Filipinos living here than Chinese.
Once I arrived in Manila, I worked with an awesome team of Filipino techies, my partners and I went about planning the hackathon: we built a website, found technical sponsors, contacted environmental NGOs, secured food for the participants, and ensured there was air conditioning—an absolutely necessity, considering the humidity levels, which regularly made the temperature feel above 95 degrees. I became a heavy coffee drinker in short order since we had two and a half weeks to plan the event and our meeting place of choice was Starbucks.
The big event came much sooner than I had expected. It was much more awesome and more fun than I ever could have imagined. The organizers initially expected some 50 or 75 people to show up to the event, but in the end over 175 came, building over 40 web and mobile applications. We also assumed the event would be male dominated since that is not uncommon in the USA, but to our pleasant surprise around half the participants were girls.
As an aside, everyone in the Philippines use a device called a monopod to help snap long-range selfies, which kids at the hackathon were doing every few minutes. It was eye-opening to say the least.
In the end, the apps created at Hack the Climate were innovative, fun, and useful. My favorite was a mobile game called Sprout, which encourages kids to conserve using a Tamagotchi/Neopets avatar that sprouts when they do good actions for the earth. Another neat application is a Chrome extension called EnvironnTab, which displays a photo of nature, a fact about environmental protection, and a local weather forecast when you open up a new tab in Google Chrome. Pretty creative stuff. Here’s a description of the winning project, Tanaw, a mobile app that "gamifies" eco-tourism with a series of virtual competitions that encourage environmental stewardship. The hackers liked the prizes, especially the Princeton T-Shirts.
The event got a lot of coverage, Yahoo!Finance picked it up, and I was even interviewed on Filipino TV!
One thing which took me completely by surprise was the overwhelming demand for further Hack the Climate events. Every few hours it seemed like an activist or a coder approached me and said “Wow, this hackathon was so much fun. I can’t wait till next year.” Our Environmental NGO and tech partners were so enthusiastic about Hack the Climate’s long-term potential that they suggested future locations for the event, including Singapore, Jakarta, and Kuala Lampur.
I believe that a changing climate does not distinguish between nationalities, ethnicities or creeds; it affects us all equally. The process of developing mobile applications to address global warming with activists from all around the world taught me that international cooperation at the grassroots level is the only way for humanity to solve the climate crisis.
~ Jacob Scheer '16
© 2014 Princeton Traveler