Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies (CHRHS)

Hack for Humanity | October 21-22, 2023

Community Centered Design: Improving the Humanitarian User Experience

Hundreds of thousands Rohingya Refugees have fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar
By Zhantu Chakma

Hack for Humanity is an annual humanitarian focused hackathon at Brown University that brings together students to learn about the most pressing needs in the human rights and humanitarian sphere and develop creative ideas for innovative programs or technologies that could help improve the lives of disaster and conflict affected communities around the world. There will be a $3,000 seed grant given to the winning team!


In the recent earthquake that took place in February 2023 in Turkey and Syria, UN agencies and International Non-Governmental Organizations alike criticized the humanitarian response and short comings of the response. Issues raised ranged from the slow pace of the response to critiques regarding the appropriateness of aid delivery. Similar to many prior emergencies, concerns were raised that the type of assistance delivered and the skill sets of international humanitarian responders did not match the needs of affected populations. Humanitarian assistance continues to employ a “cookie cutter” or “top down” approach, as opposed to one which is guided by the concerns and needs of communities affected by conflict and disaster. While a variety of needs assessment tools have been developed and promulgated by United Nations (UN) agencies and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) in recent years, their use, especially in the early phases of an acute onset disaster, have been limited by the time and resources required to collect data from affected populations.


This year's hackathon will focus on how to better prepare for and respond to humanitarian emergencies through community centered design. Students will work together over the course of two days to develop creative ideas for innovative programs, systems, or technologies that could improve the humanitarian user experience when responding to disasters or conflict. While your team has the flexibility to address any area that is applicable to the overarching topic of community centered design, we have provided a list of potential subtopics that you could draw from to narrow your focus. It will also be important for your team to consider the cross cutting issues mentioned below as you work towards developing your project pitch.

Potential Sub-Topics to Consider

These listed sub-topics have been provided to help your team get started in identifying a focus area to address. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it gives an indication of the potential areas where community centered design could be applied Your team is welcomed to focus your efforts on one of these sub-topics or identify another area altogether that is applicable to the overarching theme.

Identifying Stakeholders and Their Needs

Use of new technologies including social media and mobile phones to identify affected populations, collect data on their needs, or transfer aid directly in the form of cash or mobile credit

Ensuring quality and confidentiality of data collected from populations in humanitarian emergencies, especially when their government is a party to an ongoing conflict

Empowering Local Organizations

Types of local organizations to consider: National organizations; Community based organizations; religious and secular organizations; professional associations and trade unions; advocacy groups

How to work with local partners in locations where the government pushes back or may be the cause of a situation that requires humanitarian response.

Anticipatory Response

Early warning systems; Anticipatory funding mechanisms; Adaptation and resilience strategies

Possible use of new technologies or revisit old methodologies.

AI in Humanitarian response

Developing AI algorithms that can be applied ethically and responsibly to humanitarian response efforts

Application of AI to visual data such as satellite or drone images during emergencies

Cross-Cutting Issues

Humanitarian responders need to consistently listen to and advocate for those most negatively impacted by humanitarian crises, including but not limited to racial and ethnic minorities, indigenous communities, elderly, women, children, and marginalized groups. As such, a proper community centered humanitarian design supports and ensures the rights of these groups as well as the adherence to internationally recognized human rights.  

We ask that your team take these following issues into consideration as you work on your project pitch to ensure your solutions are inclusive and reach those that are disproportionately affected during a humanitarian emergency.



  • Advance registration is required to participate in this event
  • We are only accepting complete team registrations
  • Teams can be made up of between 3-6 students
  • Teams must be present for the duration of the hackathon
  • Please only complete one registration form per team
  • Registration closes on Saturday, 7 October 2023

Registration Form


Should you have any questions about this hackathon please send a message to chrhs@brown.edu

Resource Guide

We have created a useful resource guide on humanitarian innovation to assist your teams through the entire hackathon process - from problem identification to thinking about project implementation. While these provided resource guide will be a good start and foundation to build from, we also encourage your team to conduct your own searches for resources that may be relevant to your specific projects.

Hack for Humanity 2023 Resource Guide

Program Schedule

Please find the schedule of events here. Hack for Humanity will take place on October 21st and 22nd. Please arrive promptly between 8 - 9 am to check in your team. 

Keynote Speaker - Amy Smith

Amy Smith is the Founding Director of MIT D-Lab, an innovative university-based program in international development and a senior lecturer in Mechanical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She is also the founder of the International Development Design Summit, co-founder of the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge, co-founder of Rethink Relief conference, and originator of the Creative Capacity Building Methodology.

Following her graduation from MIT in 1984 with a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering, she served in the US Peace Corps in Botswana. She went on to receive a Master of Science degree in mechanical engineering and Master of Engineering degree, both from MIT.

In 2002, she founded MIT D-Lab. D-Lab works with people around the world to develop and advance collaborative approaches and practical solutions to global poverty challenges. Over 15 years, D-Lab has developed more than 20 MIT courses, hosts half a dozen research groups, and through the International Development Design Summits, has established a diverse international network of more than 1,000 innovators from four continents as well as local innovation centers in countries in Africa, Central America, South America, India, and Southeast Asia.

Amy was selected as a 2004 MacArthur Fellow and was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2010 for her work promoting local innovation and technology creation. She has done fieldwork in Senegal, South Africa, Nepal, Haiti, Honduras, El Salvador, Uganda, Ghana, Zambia, and Indonesia. Her current projects are in the areas of water testing, treatment and storage, agricultural processing and alternative energy, and humanitarian innovation.

MIT D-Lab, founded by Smith in 2002 is a highly regarded education, research and development, and international development program with 25+ staff, enrollment of ~300 students annually; creator of 10 MIT courses focusing on technology design, international development, and humanitarian innovation; inventor and community organizer committed to poverty alleviation. 

She leads the MIT D-Lab Humanitarion Innovation program with Martha Thompson.


A key component of this event is mentorship. To help ensure that participating teams are developing relevant, culturally appropriate, and grounded ideas that could be feasibly implemented, we will have a group of experienced mentors present during the event to help guide teams and answer questions. Over the course of the hackathon, your team will have the ability to meet with mentors in order to help gain a better understanding of the core issues associated with your topic. We will be selecting mentors so as to have a wide range of expertise on hand to answer questions, provide in-depth context, and help guide your ideas to “real-world” relevance. We encourage you to make use of this valuable resource! 

Mentor List and Bios

Mentor Sign Up Sheet

Pitch Presentations and Awards

On the second day of the hackathon, all participating teams will have the opportunity to present their pitches to a panel of judges, who will evaluate each team's pitch on the basis of originality, respect to individuals and communities, context, feasibility, impact, sustainability, and partnerships. Following all presentations, the judges will announce the top teams of the Hackathon, including the team that will have the opportunity to recieve a $3,000 seed grant!

Presentations will be evaluated using this Evaluation Framework

Alumni Career Panel


Alexis Arieff is a Specialist in African Affairs at the Congressional Research Service, where she supports Members of Congress and their staff with independent, nonpartisan policy analysis regarding North, West, and Central Africa. In her fifteen years at CRS, Alexis has authored reports on U.S. responses to security challenges in the Sahel, political change and contestation in the Maghreb, and conflict and humanitarian crises in Africa’s Great Lakes region, among other topics.

Priyanka Motaparthy is a Senior Human Right Clinical Instructor and Director of the Counterterrorism, Armed Conflict, and Human Rights Project. Prior to joining HRI, Motaparthy served as acting Emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, where she led the Emergencies division’s investigations and reporting on global atrocities and human rights crises. 

Cate Oswald is Principal Chief Program Officer at Partners In Health (PIH). As the Principal Chief Program Officer, Cate serves to ensure that PIH’s mission and theory of change are achieved by strengthening the global movement for health equity, through advocacy, policy, government accompaniment, health financing, and resource mobilization efforts. She serves as a key driver of PIH’s strategy for engagement with government and institutional partners, working hand-in-hand with PIH colleagues around the world in how we are supporting the health system strengthening efforts of local, district and national leaders in all efforts we undertake. 

Find out more about the panelists here

Hack for Humanity Summary Reports

Learn about our previously held Hack for Humanity hackathons by reading our summary reports from past years. 

Summary Reports >