Instead of recovering from the first week in the home office and finally closing the laptops, 27,000 volunteers also spent the weekend at home in front of their screens. At the #WirvsVirus hackathon, designers, project developers, programmers and many other specialists worked together to find solutions to problems in the corona crisis.

They were, as it were, commissioned by the citizens themselves. Last week, the various federal ministries had made suggestions as to what should be dealt with in the nationwide hackathon. In order to distribute the mass of volunteers to projects in a meaningful way, the organizers picked out a number of problems posed by the new type of corona virus: How can it be better to keep away from everyday life – “social distancing” – in the next few weeks? How can people from the risk group be supported when shopping? And how can the nationwide capacities of hospital beds be bundled on one platform?

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Ana Tibubos, 35, and Jasper Synowski, 25, met in one of the projects this weekend. Only virtually, of course – Tibubos, Synowski and the 23 other team members communicated via video chat and Slack, a messenger service for companies. “Above all, I was impressed by how productive everyone was, there were no going it alone, everyone thought about where they could best help,” says the student Synowski in the video chat. He shares the chat window with his teammate Tibubos, a psychologist from Mainz.

At first both thought that the hackathon was only aimed at programmers. Nevertheless, they signed up and were surprised at how much they could contribute: “We worked together in a totally interdisciplinary team, but there were no hierarchies, everyone found their way around,” says Tibubos. Together with the other volunteers in their group, their goal was to develop a platform that helps people to better deal with the psychological challenges of the crisis.

The result is a newly created website called “Mental Mentor” with suggestions such as a gratitude diary, which should put positive aspects in the foreground in times of isolation. But also a scientific questionnaire on the basis of which recommendations for finding a therapy place or virtual therapy offers are offered.

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The idea for the gigantic corona hackathon comes from Estonia. The digital flagship country had organized a similar project a week earlier. Many German digital workers followed the events in Estonia via Twitter, including Christina Lang. She works for the non-profit start-up “Tech4Germany”, which has been helping the federal government to digitize its citizen service since 2018. “I thought: we definitely need that here too,” says Lang. The idea quickly took off in her professional and private network, and more and more people wanted to help organize the hackathon. By Saturday, a 100-strong organization team had gathered around the core team of nine people from seven digital initiatives.

Christina Lang and her fellow campaigners were also able to convince the German government of their idea on Wednesday. “Unanimously”, as digital state secretary Dorothee Bär (CSU) told the opening live stream on YouTube to more than ten thousand viewers on Friday, the Federal Cabinet decided to support the initiative. Federal Chancellor Helge Braun (CDU) took over the patronage for the hackathon.

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On Friday evening there was the kick-off on YouTube, in which the organizers addressed the participants via livestream. Then the problems submitted from a long list could choose the project they wanted to work on. Communication within the teams was via Slack. But registering 42,000 people there at the same time was too much. So many originally signed up for the hackathon. The program stalled, and some participants had to wait ten hours to be invited to Slack. At least 27,000 remained.

On Saturday morning, almost 1,500 project teams came together in their own communication channels on Slack. From then on, ideas were collected, discussed and tasks distributed in video conferences. The programmers worked together on codes, graphic designers designed logos. Other volunteers took care of the first content and social media posts. For example, the “Save Harvest” team tackled the problem that 300,000 seasonal workers might be missing in the fields in spring. Together they set up a website by Sunday, which bundles various existing offers, in which harvest helpers and farmers should come together.

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The project idea “Happy Home” was about making a virtual classroom with video conference function available to students and teachers via an app, through which the teaching material can be further developed. Students can also collect points during class, which they can then exchange for games or sports instructions in the “leisure area”. Even after class, the students can virtually meet classmates in times of isolation, play with each other and exchange ideas in chat.

How can you bring together helpful students and people from the risk group?

Not everything at the hackathon was about the digital world. A key challenge was how to reach seniors for whom the internet is actually still new territory. For example, students who want to make good use of the extended lecture-free period could shop for the elderly or people from risk groups or go for a walk with their dogs. Analog solutions were also considered, such as those in need of help sticking a note to the mailboxes or reporting to a telephone exchange to be brought together with a helper on site.

Within a few weeks, the spread of the coronavirus has ensured that the healthcare system has to prepare for an emergency. Several hackathon teams also worked on ideas on how to bundle the capacity of hospital beds on a platform or how to recruit and organize additional nursing staff. The prototype “easy-care”, which was created during the hackathon, is an app that in the future could also provide laypersons with basic knowledge about care so that they can be used as helpers in the event of shortages.

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On Sunday afternoon, all of the teams were busy producing a short explanatory video about their project. In the large overall chat, cutting tools and free software for fonts were exchanged online. At around 6 p.m., the participants uploaded their more than 1,400 introductory videos to the hackathon’s working platform.

Many projects should be able to be implemented with the help of the government

This week, all videos are to land on Youtube, where everyone can view the preliminary results of the teams. A jury consisting of mentors, members of the organizational team and the chancellery will later evaluate the projects for their social benefit and quick implementation. The Federal Government has promised to implement and further promote the best ideas and solutions from the hackathon as quickly as possible.

At the “closing party” on Youtube, a last live stream of the hackathon, many colorful hearts flew through the chat channel for the organization team. Many volunteers were grateful to actively do something about the Corona crisis at the weekend, instead of just watching the rising number of infections. Christina Lang and her colleagues say that they are now dependent on the participants continuing to commit themselves to their ideas “in order to get them out onto the street quickly”.

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Chancellor and patron Helge Braun was impressed in a video message: “It was obviously the largest hackathon that has been carried out worldwide.” The previous record number of participants in a hackathon was 3,245 in Russia. However, this was done in an analogous manner, the hackers sat opposite each other. Braun said he felt obliged to help that as many ideas as possible “land in reality” where they could be used.

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