Four young women from Saudi Arabia are challenging stereotypes with their victory at a record-breaking hackathon. Their innovation could even help save lives by making it easier for non-Arabic speaking Hajj pilgrims to navigate their way through five days of religious devotion.

The annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, takes place this year between 19 and 24 August. Last year, an estimated 2.4 million Muslims from across the world participated in the five days of ritual and reflection. A similar number could attend this year, maybe more – perhaps as many as three million.

The Hajj is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, and all Muslims, provided they are able and have the financial means, are obliged to make the pilgrimage at least once in their lives. Not surprisingly, for a global religion, pilgrims come from all over the world, speaking dozens of different languages. However, past years have seen many deaths and serious injuries occur as a result of accidents and incidents triggered – or exacerbated by – confusion and overcrowding.

Stampedes have been the cause of the greatest loss of life in recent years. Between 1990 and 2016, more than 3,000 pilgrims were killed as a result of stampedes, with countless others left injured. Safety is a major concern for attendees, and now an all-female team of entrepreneurs and software developers from Saudi Arabia could be about to make the Hajj safer.

Muslims pray at the Grand Mosque during the Hajj pilgrimage in 2017.
Image: Reuters/Suhaib Salem

The team won 1 million Saudi riyals ($266,000) in exchange for 15% equity in their company, by winning the Hajj Hackathon in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The Turjuman team, made up of four Saudi women, set out to tackle the challenge of staying safe in a foreign land by addressing the language barrier head-on.

They have created an app that instantly translates information on signage boards and signposts; with a smartphone pilgrims can read vital visitor information in their own language. By eliminating confusion, the team hopes they will be better informed and therefore better able to keep themselves safe.

The hackathon was backed by the Saudi Federation for Cyber Security, Programming and Drones (SAFCSP) and was supported by Google. The competition judges included Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple and Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia.

Record-breaking event

The three-day hackathon event was held at Jeddah’s International Exhibition and Convention Center, and attended by a total of 2,950 developers. That made it the largest gathering of its kind, and it was awarded a Guinness World Record for having the most participants at a software development contest. The previous record holder had been a 2012 event in India which had 2,577 attendees.

The 10 teams taking part in the Hajj Hackathon focused on areas such as crowd management, food, health, finance, traffic control, travel, housing, communications, and waste management.

The winning Turjuman app uses QR codes – two-dimensional barcodes – to reveal translated versions of key information. It has also been chosen for development in a 100-day workshop conducted by the Badir Program for Technology Incubators and Accelerators in association with SAFCSP.

It was significant that an all-female team emerged victorious. They not only defied the odds in a male-dominated industry but also in a deeply conservative country where every woman must have a male guardian who makes critical decisions on her behalf.

The hackathon event is part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 strategy, a programme of economic and social reforms championed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud.