Since early 2014, over 3.3 million Iraqis have been internally displaced due to conflict, and more than 240,000 Syrian refugees currently live in Iraq. The humanitarian crisis has created many difficulties, disrupting sectors such as education and employment.
As an attempt to respond to the needs of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), the Social Innovation Hackathon held in July 2017 by Re:Coded at TechHub gathered a large group of local students, social entrepreneurs, humanitarians and community residents. The aim was to develop creative technology solutions that address the specific challenges facing refugees and IDPs in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, including barriers to education, difficulty accessing the job market and social cohesion between displaced Iraqis and host community members.
The winner of the Social Innovation Hackathon was Virtual Teacher by a team of three: Allan Salah, San Mohammed and Hakeem Alkhateeb.
Virtual Teacher is a mobile gaming app that utilizes virtual reality headsets to provide users with a totally immersive experience that is both educational and fun. The aim of the platform is solving the language barrier facing young refugees living in camps and displaced communities.
After winning the hackathon, the team went onto the Startup Bootcamp that was held by FiveOne Labs at Techhub, a community working space for tech startups in Iraq, based in Erbil, to give budding Iraqi techstars the springboard they need to build, grow and scale their startup in a fully supportive tech environment. Allan described this experience by mentioning “We have learned that no dream is too big and that everything is possible if you put your mind to it.”
The app is currently in the developing stage. The team is working on developing the game mechanics and content. San is in charge of designing the game including 2D and 3D design as well as compiling the design together. Allan and Hakeem are both developers. Allan is in charge of coding, animation control, and dataset development of the app. Hakeem is in charge of coding and animating the characters.
They are using the Unity game development engine for the Android operating system to develop Virtual Teacher. In the future, they will expand the final product into the Oculus platform to utilize Virtual Reality headsets. The team’s plan for the next steps is to go out into the field and do thorough tests on their product and get user feedback.
When they came up with the idea at the hackathon, none of them had any experience with making virtual reality games. They have faced several obstacles during their experience. One of which was overcoming the technical difficulties as the technology is new and is constantly being updated. They also believe that proper education and training that translates into the real world and help entrepreneurs overcome the challenges and obstacles is missing in Iraq.
They overcame the technical difficulties by getting familiar with the game development platform, Unity, which is primarily used to develop video games and simulations for computers, consoles, and mobile devices. On top of everything, as Alan said, “Working as a team helped to get through the difficulties as we were able to motivate each other.”
Nevertheless, one of the biggest barriers to every startup is fundraising. Virtual Teacher’s plan to fund the startup is through approaching NGOs that are interested in funding local entrepreneurs especially those that are interested in education and refugees.
However, the support of Re:Coded, FiveOne Labs and Techhub has made building this start-up in Iraq a possibility. The team strongly recommend startups to work in a co-working environment like Techhub to build networks and find the support required.
After the hackathon, the Virtual Teacher team were accepted to MIT's Refugee Accelerator and are currently occupied with that. Two of the members, Hakim and Allan, are also in Re:Coded's Android bootcamp which ends in February
We look forward to hearing updates on this exciting idea!