BISHKEK, Kyrgyz Republic – When Coronavirus (COVID-19) first began spreading through Kyrgyzstan in March, the government declared a national state of emergency. Cities and villages with confirmed cases were subject to travel restrictions and curfews, leaving many people without an income or reliable source of food. Though the state allocated food packages to those affected, there simply wasn’t enough to go around.

Volunteers stepped in where they could to provide help, including delivering food packages and hygiene supplies, but they found that many people such as internal migrants were not able to communicate their needs as they were not officially registered in the areas where they live.

“I am confident that our app will help in combating the impacts of Coronavirus” - Katya Shin, app developer

Katya Shin and Sarah Niyazakhunova, both first-year software engineering students at Kyrgyz-German University in Bishkek, watched the health crisis unfolding and knew that they wanted to help. In May, they joined forces in an online hackathon supported by Spotlight Initiative to do just that. 

The hackathon brought together programmers, designers and representatives from crisis centres to develop digital solutions to the quarantine problems of vulnerable groups, particularly youth, women and girls, and people with disabilities. Over 48 hours, 53 developers worked across 18 projects.

Connecting volunteers with those in need

Ms. Shin and Ms. Niyazakhunova designed a ‘Wish Map’, a smartphone app that would enable volunteers to see who needs help, where they’re located and what kind of assistance they require. The app would accommodate a broad spectrum of needs – from a request for masks, soap or medicine to help escaping a violent aggressor.

“Using the app, a volunteer who had undergone first-aid training could see the sticker on the map and come help” - Sarah Niyazakhunova, app developer

“I am confident that our app to some extent will help in combating [the impacts of] Coronavirus,” says Ms. Shin. "We saw that cases of domestic violence became more frequent [during lockdown] because [people] have to spend all day sitting at home.” This means that many women and families are trapped at home with their abusers. “Using the app, a person may simply press the SOS button and this will call the police and ambulance,” she says.

Her collaborator, Ms. Niyazakhunova, explains that the content would be user-generated. Those in need would simply mark their location on a map and describe the assistance they require.

“There was a case where a person was in need of first aid but everyone passed by because no one knew what to do,” says Ms. Niyazakhunova. “[Using the app,] a volunteer who had undergone first-aid training could see the sticker on the map and come help.”

The app would also make it easier for those experiencing hardship to place a request anonymously.

Although the pair did not win the contest, their ideas were commended by the specialists involved in the hackathon and both girls say they are inspired to continue working on technology that meets the needs of women, children and other vulnerable groups. Discussions are underway about supporting the girls to roll out the app later this year. 

By Alexandra Titova and Aiperi Alymbekova. Photo: Lex Titova.