The hajj, expected to draw more than 2 million pilgrims to Mecca this year, represents a key rite of passage for Muslims and a massive logistical challenge for Saudi authorities, with colossal crowds cramming into relatively small holy sites.
Launching headlong into 36 hours of software development, the participants from across the globe battled sleep deprivation to crowdsource answers to a key question that has long vexed hajj organizers – how to avert future deadly disasters.
A group of five Saudi Arabian, Yemeni and Eritrean women, all in their 20s and covered head-to-toe in Shariah-compliant dress, hunched over their laptops to design an app for paramedics to speedily reach people in need of medical attention using geo-tracking technology.
If multiple emergencies arise at once, the women hoped their app would help prioritise the most pressing cases.
Two Pakistani professionals paired up with two East Asian students to develop a “virtual leash” application to locate relatives lost in the sea of humanity by using Bluetooth wristbands.
Four Saudi men sought to design sensors for garbage bins that would alert cleaners when they are full to avert any hygiene scare.
With nearly 3,000 programmers — who ate and slept at the venue — organisers said Saudi Arabia had broken the Guinness World Record for the largest number of participants at a hackathon.
“This (hackathon) will enrich that experience, will give us plenty of solutions and ideas that we can actually adapt and invest in,” she told AFP.
“I imagine the Saudi authorities are very anxious to avoid a repeat of past mishaps that could reflect badly on the ‘modernising’ narrative around Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman,”
said Kristian Ulrichsen, a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute in the US.
Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 reform plan seeks to shift the economy of Saudi Arabia – the world’s top crude exporter – away from oil dependency towards other sources of revenue, including religious tourism.
Last year’s hajj passed without major health or safety upsets, but a politicisation of the hajj remains a concern amid regional rivalries.
Saudi Arabia and its allies are also embroiled in a political boycott of neighbouring Qatar, which denies accusations of fostering close ties with Iran and backing extremism.
“For the Saudi ruling elite, its custodianship of the two holy sites is arguably more sensitive this year in the wake of the heightened tension in the region,” Ulrichsen said.