Miami-Dade County

Hackathon goers create apps for getting the information out — in Cuba

Problems with censorship, extremely costly service and the lowest cellphone and Internet penetration rates in the Western Hemisphere cripple communication in Cuba. Do we think there is an app for that?

At South Florida’s first Hackathon for Cuba on Saturday, there were plenty of ideas for tech solutions to help Cubans disseminate information under the harshest of conditions — and three winners.

Inspired by Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez’s call to action and fueled by caffeine and carbs, about 50 computer programmers formed teams and spent the day building solutions and then presented them to judges at The LAB Miami, a coworking campus in Wynwood. The event was produced by the nonprofit Roots of Hope, a network of college students and young professionals that help empower Cuban youth through technology and entrepreneurial support. Three $1,000 cash prizes provided by Roots of Hope,, The LAB Miami and MIA Collective were awarded.

Two of the three winning teams based their solutions on using email to disseminate the information, which obviously seems quite primitive for this group. “You have to challenge yourself to think outside the box,” explained Raul Moas, Roots of Hope’s executive director. “We’re taking a step back in time to move forward.”

For hackathon participants Daniel Arzuaga, Felix Diaz and Salvador Pascual, using email just made sense, as 70 percent of Cubans have access to email but just 3 percent have access to the Internet.

“Our app creates the Internet without the Internet,” said Arzuaga, who moved here from Cuba 14 years ago. He explained that a person could access marketplace information, such as who is selling iPhones, or a condensed version of a Wikipedia entry, for instance. They plan to continue developing the applications.

Developers Jose Pimienta and Osniel Gonzalez also won for an email application. Called Cuba Direct, their application helps Cubans browse the web through email, allowing ways to search Google, Wikipedia or recent Twitter updates, for instance. Will they continue developing it? With a good start on the development on Saturday, “we are going to put it on a server and let our [developer] friends in Cuba play with it,” said Pimienta, who moved here from Cuba and 2009. Gonzalez arrived in 2012.

The third winner, Ronny Rodriguez, envisions a $50-$75 kit that would include a mini computer called Raspberry Pi that can store information and essentially create a web access point for sharing the information with others. “I want to share something with the Cuban people because I know how difficult it is. I was there,” said Rodriguez, who moved from Cuba about five years ago.

Nine other projects competed, including one for sending Cuban blogs from the inside to the outside world. Other ones addressed maximizing the benefits of expensive Internet cafe sessions or essentially creating the cafe at home. The overall goal of the hackathon was to bring together people who are passionate about helping Cuba with those who live and breathe technology to devise solutions and continue working on them, said Natalia Martinez, chief technology officer for Roots of Hope. A hackathon ground rule: The solutions being developed could not violate U.S. or Cuban laws.

The hackathon, sponsored by the Knight Foundation, kicked off Friday night with an opening party attended by more than 100 people. It included a few remarks from Sanchez, via video because she had to leave unexpectedly Friday morning. Sanchez said Cubans desperately need innovative apps to disseminate information. She also said she hopes to soon see the next hackathon — not in Miami but in Cuba.

Typically one- or two-day contests where programmers form teams to build apps and compete for prizes, hackathons are fairly common in South Florida now and are also becoming more specialized. In recent months, events have addressed immigration reform and education. And it’s hackathon high season in South Florida. The PayPal BattleHack is returning to The LAB Miami Feb. 22-23. One winner will be selected to compete in the global finals for a $100,000 prize. Then on March 22-23, again at The LAB, there will be a Music Hack Day to kick off the MIA Music Summit. And in May, eMerge Americas is planning a hackathon.

Roots of Hope wants to hold Hackathon for Cuba events in San Francisco and New York later in the year.

Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg