For 36 hours last week Israeli high-tech entrepreneurs turned their focus to the plight of Holocaust survivors, striving to find tech solutions to their needs and ways to preserve the memory of events and educate future generations. This year, they were joined, for the first time, by IDF soldiers.
It all started when a group of IDF officers went on a study trip to the concentration camps in Poland, as part of an army program to increase awareness of the Holocaust among its soldiers. There, said Major E, who was part of the delegation, they met with a Holocaust survivor who recounted the horrors of the camps in a first-person narrative.
“Sometimes there are no witnesses present during these kind of trips,” Major E, a female soldier whose identity cannot be revealed for security purposes, said in an interview with The Times of Israel. But their group had the chance to speak to one, and that got Major E thinking.
“I said to myself, in a few years there won’t be Holocaust survivors alive to bear firsthand witness,” she said. So she turned to her commanding officer and he challenged her to come up with a solution that would enable IDF soldiers to do their part in helping commemorate the tragedy and assist the survivors.
The best solution, she thought, would be to join the existing Spark Hackathon.
The Spark Hackathon, held for the second year running, saw some 200 participants, entrepreneurs, developers, and mentors from the tech world team up with Holocaust survivors and representatives of nonprofit organizations for two days last week to set up projects and find feasible solutions that will help commemoration and education.
The hackathon is the first of its kind the IDF has participated in, Major E said.
The 30 IDF soldiers, dressed in their uniforms, who took part in the initiative were from the C4I and Cyber Defense Directorate of the army. “It is our duty,” said Major E. “Our country should not be taken for granted and it should not be taken for granted that there is an army that protects this nation.”
The Holocaust victims and the survivors “didn’t have a country” to protect them, she said. “We are a technological unit. We want to do what we do best, for the good of those who have gone through so much. ”
An IDF team that set up an diary app — for users to write about their feelings and emotions and pictures while visiting the camps — won third place in the hackathon, she said, while the team she led, which reached the finalist stage, came up with a GPS-based emergency button that older people can take with them when they leave the house. Users can wear the button on a chain around their necks or wrists or even on a keychain, she explained. Once pressed, the button would call up either an emergency contact person or emergency services, providing them with the accurate location of the person in distress.
Now, said Major E, the IDF has given the go-ahead to proceed with the development of both ideas. The diary app, once created, will be made available to soldiers who go to Poland, she explained, while the emergency button will be developed within the army and hopefully launched as a pilot program together with Tel Aviv-Yafo municipality.
The Spark 2019 hackathon was held on May 23-24 with the goal of creating “workable solutions for challenges in education, remembrance and quality of life of Holocaust survivors,” the website says. A second goal is to create a “powerful and meaningful event” to inspire participants.
The winner of the competition was AloTok, which has developed a phone-based app that uses advanced technology to create optimal connections between users, based on their availability and shared fields of interests. The app aims to become the first social network of its kind to provide a warm, secure and accessible community atmosphere where senior citizens and Holocaust survivors can “form meaningful high-quality relationships.”