Apps and Activists
11:31 pm
Mon February 3, 2014

Hackathon For Cuba Developers Try To Free The Island's Internet

At LAB Miami in Wynwood this past weekend, local software developers and designers formed teams to compete for the best app that would give Cubans on the island uncensored Internet access, calling it the first ever “Cuba Hackathon.”

The event was organized by Roots of Hope, a network of young professionals working to “empower Cuba’s youth.”

Natalia Martinez, one of the organizers, says the idea first came from a meeting with Yoani Sanchez, the noted Cuban blogger and activist. They thought it would be interesting to have a tool for Twitter that did what Outlook does for email.

“The people who tweet in Cuba do so mostly through text message,” says Martinez. “They do so, in Spanish what’s called ‘a la ciega’ which in English is ‘blindly.’ They don’t get a response back.”

Sanchez could not make it to the Friday reception that kicked off the weekend-long event. But she left a video message for the developers.

“I’m waiting for the next hackathon to be in Havana,” she said. “For all of us to get together and think of a future in apps and in gadgets.”

Before the competition officially began on Saturday morning, Natalia Martinez went over the criteria that developers and designers should follow: innovation, feasibility and scalability. The only rule was for projects to be compliant with U.S. and Cuban laws.

When Martinez asked if there were any questions following her announcement, Jorge Artiles spoke up: “I want to know what is legal in Cuba."

He made it very clear that he was "not here to compete," but to "inform." His project entails satellite Internet access and a police cellphone jammer -- both illegal in Cuba.

“I was told that I could not compete because it’s against Cuban laws,” Artiles said. “In Cuba, everything is illegal. I have to go against the people who are punishing my family in Cuba.”

Roots of Hope’s Raul Moas says, however, if a person in Cuba is caught with satellite Internet, they’ll be sent to jail automatically.

“What we want to do is come up with applications that support connectivity, but at the same time, keeping people in Cuba safe and compliant with their laws,” he said.

Jorge Artiles was disqualified. The remaining 12 teams had to beat the clock. Martinez counted down the seconds to 4:45 p.m., when the competitors had to stop.

The teams then presented their projects to three judges. Each of three winners would receive a $1,000 prize.

One of the winning solutions was a kit containing a mini-computer that provides a web access point to share information with others. The other two were similar projects, using email as a search engine: The subject line would act as a search bar for Google, or even Wikipedia.

But Jose Pimienta’s team took it to Twitter with their app: “You can [write] ‘Twitter updates WLRN radio’ and you get all the 20 latest tweets of that user."

If you're on the island and find tweets of this story, we hope you can share it. And if you couldn't be at the hackathon, hear pieces of it here: