Imagine living in a country where it would take a quarter of a month's salary to access the Internet for an hour, and a heavily censored Internet at that. In this world, access to information and the ability to send information to others, among the most ubiquitous actions of the connected world, is a luxury.
When Internet cafes were finally legalized (just last year) this was the position that many Cubans found themselves in. Their country remains the least connected in the Western hemisphere in terms of both Internet and cell phone use. To put it in plain terms, even post-earthquake Haiti was more connected both to the outside world and to one another. And yet with cell phone and Internet use on the rise on the island, owed to modest government reforms, there are emerging opportunities for connectivity that have yet to be explored.
In Miami, the home of the largest Cuban population outside the island, these changes and new opportunities have not gone unnoticed. This weekend, Raices de Esperanza, a non-profit organization focused on empowering Cuban youth, launched the first ever "Hackathon for Cuba" in hopes of coming up with innovative software technologies that will help those on the island connect with the outside world, and to each other.
Programmers ranging from non-Cubans to Cuban Americans who were born in the U.S. to recent arrivals participated in the event, keeping in mind the specific context of the island. Since the island lags so far behind the connected world in telecommunications, only legacy Android apps, text messaging, and email services could prove useful for the experiment.
"Cuba is a country that needs more than anything to develop a means of freedom through technology," said Yoani Sanchez, Cuba's best-known dissident blogger, in a pre-recorded statement played for participants at the event. The idea for the hackathon came during a meeting with Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, Sanchez, and members of Raices de Esperanza last November. "I know that over the course of these few days that potential solutions [for connectivity] will be found."
"The more I researched about Cuba and got to know the restrictions that the island has, the more interesting it was," said participant and programmer Miguel Chateloin, a Cuban American born in the states. "We decided that we could make something that would help people like Yoani Sanchez— bloggers, journalists, and political dissidents— who want to communicate with the outside world and blog."
Chateloin and teammate Lazaro Gamio spent the weekend developing software that will allow users to post on a WordPress blog directly through email. The service that they call Postales (Spanish for postcards) draws inspiration from those used by major tech companies before smartphones were so widely available. "Facebook would send you an email telling you that a friend commented or did some other kind of interaction, and you could respond right on your email and connect to their server without ever having to log in," Chateloin explained. "It's the same idea."
Cuban-born duo Osniel Gonzalez and Jose Pimienta also chose to focus on email solutions to communications. "The Internet access is too limited in Cuba, but most of the people have access to email at least sometimes," said Gonzalez. "We are focusing on getting information from different news organizations into the country through email. If we compress the information and send it as attachments in the email, it can be downloaded and shared on USB."
Pimienta spoke about the censorship that is pervasive on the island, and noted that even some volumes from national hero Jose Marti's writings are mysteriously missing from the libraries on the island. "If you are even censoring your own culture and heritage, imagine how much you are going to get censored if you are trying to learn about the world in 2014," he said. The two worked on software called CubaDirect that allows users to search the unfiltered web and find news stories through a series of emails back and forth with the service, using a code to switch potentially targeted words out for other slang terms that Cubans might understand.
"We think that this can serve as a model for similar countries if we get it right," said Brett Hudson, Director of Business Development at the LAB Miami, the venue for the hackathon. He talked of the need of the community to get together and develop these technologies in a set period of time, even if many of them ultimately fall short of perfection. "Something like 90 percent of businesses fail. Is that a bad thing? This can be a beacon of hope for people to come experiment with ideas, and see what succeeds."
Though the lines often get blurry when dealing with a country like Cuba, organizers stated that they are committed to obeying the laws of both the U.S. and Cuba.
Winners of the event included CubaDirect, Rasberry PI, a $25 Internet server for local use, and Apretaste— a service that allows users to surf Wikipedia and online marketplaces by sending an email titled 'ayuda' (help) to firstname.lastname@example.org. The latter service already saw 3,000 users last month from the island, developers said.
"The hard work begins after this," said Natalia Martinez, chief innovations and technology officer at Raices de Esperanza. "It's only a one day hackathon, and after this it comes down to following up on the pitches and figuring out what needs to happen for those pitches to be finalized and implemented in a way that is high impact."
The organization has plans to expand the Miami hackathon to Silicon Valley and to New York later in the year, Martinez said. "We have always believed as an organization that technology can play a key role in what I call 'opening doors or widening cracks' that Cubans have made for themselves… This is only the first of many steps."