Though rockets are flying around Israeli skies, 20 Jewish students from top universities and corporations around the world have traveled to Israel for a 10-week internship at large tech companies like Checkpoint, Google and PayPal, as well as at start-ups –and they’re getting involved in the tech side of the conflict.
While they may have signed up for the internships to advance their careers, participants in the Israel Tech Challenge have been making their own small contribution to the war effort. “One of the features of the program is a hackathon, in which participants try to come up with a useful app or technology based on a theme,” said program participant Akiva Futter. “My team developed an app which would be very useful for security purposes — Notifi, which gives you geo-information about where there is unrest, such as protests or riots.” For Israelis and Jews in places like Europe, where tensions are high over the Gaza war, the app could be an important safety measure during tense times when it’s completed.
The Challenge, a cooperative effort of The Jewish Agency, the government of Israel, and private investors, brings some of the most accomplished Jewish young adults in the professional world to Israel for an intense insider look at how the Start-Up Nation works. They’re chosen from some 500 applicants. The Challenge is designed to connect top students and young adult tech professionals from the Diaspora with tools and networks to enrich their careers in the high-tech industry, and to develop connections with the Israeli high-tech sector.
“It’s a way to combine Judaism, Zionism, and technology for these tech leaders,” said Oren Toledano, director of the Israel Tech Challenge. It’s an especially important trip right now, he said. “All of the participants knew what they were getting themselves into, and chose to come anyway.”
The program consists of three components — a 10-day Tech Challenge Experience, the 10-week internship program, and a 10-month fellowship program, an extension of the internship component designed for participants who see themselves immigrating to Israel. The program is in its third year and generally brings 25 people in per session; five of the internship participants dropped out, after citing personal reasons, without naming the war as their motivation, said Toledano.
The group is visiting R&D centers of top global companies, like PayPal, where the hackathons are held, and Google. They also meet with successful start-up entrepreneurs, participate in lectures by leading tech experts, have sessions with the industry’s top mentors, and more.
Participants come from the United States, France, Canada, and Argentina, among others. Some already work as interns at leading companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, LinkedIn, and Dropbox, while others are students at such top institutions as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard University, Stanford University, Columbia University, and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). The group is accompanied by several young Israeli tech entrepreneurs.
The group of 20 came to Israel on July 14, a week into the Israeli air campaign in Gaza that opened Operation Defensive Edge, joining another group of 16 that arrived in June. Both the newcomers and the “veterans” have taken things in stride, said Toledano. “They didn’t overreact to the situation, and they’ve shown a good ability to cope with the situation. They didn’t panic when sirens went off in Tel Aviv, where most of them are working, and their motivation has not decreased.”
If anything, it’s increased, said Toledano, “Many of the participants had ideas about developing security related apps in the hackathon, and some have done so in the context of the theme of the event, which to develop apps and services to enhance safe living in urban areas.”
Among those apps is Notifi, developed by Futter and several colleagues during the Challenge’s June hackathon. Notifi checks your location and checks Twitter for messages on developing situations in your area. “The premise is that when there is a security incident — a protest, robbery, fire, etc. — people are going to tweet about it in real time,” said Futter. “Over 60% of tweets include geolocation information. We coordinate that information with sentiment analysis to determine how serious a situation is, and send appropriate warnings out to users. The app would work very well in Israel, or anywhere else.”
When it’s finished, that is. Futter and his team developed an alpha version of the app for the hackathon, but with their internship duties (Futter is working at Checkpoint) they haven’t had time to follow up. “I really hope we can find the time to finish it,” Futter said. “There’s a lot of unrest in Israel and the Jewish world in general, with anti-Semitic riots going on throughout Europe. A tool like this could help make life safer for large numbers of people.”