April 10, 2020

The 10-year-old hacking coronavirus instead of playing Fortnite

Jae Jensen

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A young boy from Hyderabad, India vows to use his quarantine to do something useful.

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Just a few weeks ago, Rehan Raj was writing a letter to the government of India. In it, he proposed creating a coronavirus vaccine using a weakened form of the virus to help create immunity. India currently has over 6,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. He thought with the government surely receiving so many emails, a letter would carry more weight.

As the situation escalated and the country moved into a lockdown, he realized he wouldn’t be able to make it to the post office. So, he decided to let it be. Within a matter of days, however, he saw an announcement on the government’s website about Hack the Crisis India. He’d never heard of a hackathon before, but he and his friend Arjun decided to join. “Let’s just try this out for fun,” he thought.

His team’s idea, The Virus-Limiter, ended up in the top 300 at Hack the Crisis India out of over 2,500 teams. The concept involved spraying a chloroquine phosphate steam to prevent airborne coronavirus from spreading. Rehan demonstrated the concept with a stop-motion Lego animation, which garnered praise from organizers for his creativity and improvisation under time constraints. “You should never stop being creative,” he says.

With school being held remotely online from the beginning of March, Rehan made a choice,“ I decided to not waste my time doing random stuff, but to do something meaningful.” The Indian national hackathon came the weekend before school exams, so he made a compromise with his parents to spend Saturday on his idea and Sunday studying.

While a hackathon can be a lot to juggle alongside other responsibilities, he has a message for other kids, but which rings true for many of us: “The world has given you so much knowledge. Instead of just chilling at your house and playing Fortnite, give something back. Everybody has knowledge to give back.”

There were bumps along the way in the first hackathon for Rehan’s team, like missing the first checkpoint and not knowing exactly what was going on. “I thought there would be more kids in it, because the event mentioned that all citizens could do it. Then some guy was talking about marketing, and I was like ‘what?’ So, we Googled for half an hour what they were talking about.”

Although Arjun had to drop out early to study, Rehan got help from a mentor, Vilinya, and saw his idea through to the end. He recalls it was well after midnight when he realized he’d placed in the top 300 teams.

Encouraged by the unexpected success at the national hackathon in India, Rehan decided to participate in The Global Hack event the following weekend. He went back to the drawing board to create a new version of The Virus-Limiter, a contactless drone delivery system to bring COVID-19 self-testing kits and other goods like medicines and groceries to people.

He’s already exploring a partnership with the team behind Gotestyourself.eu regarding test kits, and participants from the Netherlands, India, and Pakistan have now joined his team. The last missing piece at the moment is a UX/UI designer to help design their app.

Challenges they’re currently considering are how to acquire drones, figuring out where to drop deliveries safely, and how much weight the drones can carry. “We can safely say we aren’t distributing refrigerators,” explains Rehan, “just the necessities like rice and flour.”

A year from now,he hopes that he and his team, which he plans to grow, will be “talking to the WHO and telling them about our idea.” When he’s older, Rehan says he would eventually like to be the founder of a company that works on important issues. One area of interest is renewable energy-powered cars.

When it comes to his competition in The Global Hack, Rehan says, “I wish them all good luck,” and that he’s happy they’re using their time to help solve problems. He adds that he hopes their solutions will be profitable, “to an extent”, but that their main focus will be benefiting people in need.

Rehan believes that everyone has an idea, but that only some people choose to take their ideas forward. He sees hackathons as a great platform to get solutions organized and heard, especially during the logistical problems of a lockdown. “The government has good ideas, but there are 1.2 billion people in India alone, so that’s 1.2 billion chances of getting the right idea.” He encourages more people to have the courage to share their ideas.

The Global Hack is taking place April 9 to 12 entirely online. Thousands of teams from around the world are developing concepts to address coronavirus-related problems. A prize pool of €195,000 will be awarded to the best ideas in 12 tracks, from health and wellness to education, governance, and more.