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Developing new solutions that make everyday life easier for blind and visually impaired people: That was the goal of the hackathon organised by the Swiss Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired and Red Hat. At the event, blind, visually impaired and sighted technology professionals worked together intensively on various projects — from obstacle detection to automatically determining the expiry date of products in the supermarket.

The Swiss Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired (SBV), in collaboration with technology partner Red Hat and sponsors VSHN and Tech Data, organised a hackathon for blind, visually impaired and sighted people. Around 30 programmers and IT professionals met at the Sheraton Hotel in Zurich and worked together on useful solutions that support blind and visually impaired people in their everyday lives.

They were welcomed at the event by the two initiators of the project — Luciano Butera, Head of the Technology and Innovation Department at SBV, and Dominik Wotruba, Head of TechSales, Switzerland at Red Hat. The two also presented the project ideas which had been submitted in the run-up to the event. Five of them finally made it into the final selection. Namely, applications for:

  • recognizing the expiry date on food

  • recognizing obstacles on the street

  • finding tandems for activities

  • reading out menus in restaurants

  • querying the status of lifts and escalators in the railway station, including indoor routing

Projects with open source characteristics

Afterwards, the participants divided up among the five different projects. The majority of these came either from Red Hat itself or from SBV, but also partly from customers and partners. "Small communities developed around the ideas — actually quite similar as in open source projects", Dominik Wotruba notes. And he adds, "Everyone was able to chip in their individual skills and thus contribute to the project's success."

The teams then had to get a functioning prototype up and running in the shortest possible time. On the technical side, VSHN provided each team with its own cloud operating platform APPUiO based on Red Hat OpenShift, while Tech Data contributed its AI solution Tech Lab. Red Hat programmers also prepared basic frameworks for developing the solutions — so-called skeletons — to make it easier for the participants to get started with the project. This was followed by eager brainstorming and coding. "The participants worked in a completely focused way —- practically non-stop. You could really feel that people were on a mission," says Luciano Butera.

Smartphone app makes menus accessible

At the end of the hackathon, the teams had to present their solution to a jury of four. In addition to Luciano Butera and Dominik Wotruba, Jonas Janz, solution architect at Red Hat, and René Jaun, editor at the publishing house Netzmedien, were responsible for critically assessing the applications.

The jury was particularly enthusiastic about the "MENUista" project by Selamet Aydogdu, Dominique Hofstetter, Lars Jenzer, Alexey Loubyansky and Erik Jan de Wit. At the hackathon, they developed the smartphone app that automatically displays the menus of nearby restaurants. Blind and visually impaired people can then have these read out directly to them and are thus not dependent on sighted companions.

According to Luciano Butera, the benefits of the solution, the progress of the project and the presentation were central to the assessment. According to him, "MENUista" did very well in all aspects. "The app is easy to use and does exactly what it is supposed to do. As far as the team was able to develop the solution at the hackathon, it provides the greatest benefit to the users," says the co-initiator of the hackathon. He is also convinced that the automatic compilation of menu cards from nearby restaurants is generally helpful. "The winning project is an excellent example of how software for blind and visually impaired people can also be practical for sighted people," comments Luciano Butera. 

"Prime example of customer-centric working"

When asked to sum up the hackathon, the feedback was positive throughout. Aarno Aukia, Co-Founder of the sponsor VSHN, advised the teams at the hackathon. He was particularly struck by the successful integration of all participants: "When finding their way around the event location, the blind and visually impaired participants were sometimes glad to have assistance. But as soon as everyone sat down at the laptop and started working, suddenly there was no difference at all." 

Christopher Schmidt from Red Hat partner innoQ Schweiz GmbH and also a participant at the event particularly praises the "open, almost friendship-like atmosphere" that prevailed on site. "The opportunity to hear directly from the people who are affected by the challenges on a daily basis and to work out solutions was one of the highlights of the two days," he says in his summary.

Dominik Wotruba has a similar opinion: "For the teams, it was important to develop solutions that are precisely tailored to the needs of the users. It was therefore absolutely crucial to respond to the input of the blind and visually impaired participants. In this respect, the hackathon was a prime example of customer-centred work."