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No problem too big: Cairo traffic meets Egyptian innovation

Hartwig Schafer's picture
Also available in: العربية
By now everyone should know about the vast reservoir of technical talent in Egypt. Silicon Valley took notice of it last year when a Water Hackathon was organized to draw on local, digital ingenuity for solutions to water management. The whole world watched in awe two years ago when young Egyptians used new, social media technology to organize mass demonstrations that played a critical role in transforming not only their own country, but the entire political landscape of the Middle East. It only made sense to bring this talent to bear on a challenge millions of Egyptians face every day: Cairo traffic.

The World Bank, together with the ministries of Communications and Transport and Egypt’s information technology industry, just organized the first ever Cairo Transport App Challenge (Cairo TApp). Teams of digital innovators tackled a range of issues related to moving about the Egyptian capitol’s congested streets, such as road safety, managing the fragmented public transportation system and developing car pools. Over the course of two months, 23 teams were whittled down to ten finalists who then went head to head at an awards ceremony held at Smart City, one of Egypt’s technology hubs on the outskirts of Cairo.

CDG CairoI had the great honor of attending the final event and was deeply impressed by each of the presentations. The judges certainly had their work cut out for them. Each application was equally innovative, and, more importantly, carried the promise of improving people’s lives by harnessing technology to produce practical applications that could be implemented right away. One of the ten finalists  developed a GPS-enabled transportation guide called "ArkaBeh" which will not only help commuters plan their trips, but also serve as a means for reporting dangers such as harassment directly to the relevant authorities. This would be an especially useful feature for women, for whom the risk of harassment is the greatest deterrent to using public transportation, which limits their mobility and makes economic opportunities that much harder to reach.

Another application, "Taree2y" would provide real time access to detailed information on Cairo traffic by collecting and aggregating the information available from GPS chips installed on the army of smartphones in use throughout the city.  First prize was eventually awarded to an App called "Beliaa", a "mobile car mechanic" that helps drivers locate repair centers and request service, as well as keep up with scheduled maintenance of their cars. In addition to a financial reward, the winning team got to participate at the 2013 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, giving Egyptian ingenuity a chance to shine on this global stage for the first time.

CDG CairoThere were a number of other prizes, but in my view the event was a collective victory for the country’s entire information and communication technology (ICT) sector. Much like the Water Hackathon before it, TApp demonstrated the positive effects ICT can have on other sectors of the economy. On a greater scale, it can transform them. As one of the region’s largest economies, Egypt needs a thriving ICT sector as a catalyst for innovation and growth. Even a humble investment such as ours in prize money and event organization produced an abundance of original ideas that could have a significant impact on transportation. The Apps developed promise not only to aid the millions navigating the streets of Cairo, but also to stimulate economic activity, by generating a demand for new services such as efficient, roadside repair. Imagine the results of a much larger investment.

Along with innovation and growth, ICT can help foster entrepreneurship and be a source of desperately needed jobs. There are 40,000 jobs in the Smart Village alone and 99 percent of them are held by Egyptians. These are skilled, well-paying jobs. As it grows, the sector will create more employment both within the industry and outside of it.  It is estimated that each job in ICT leads to three more in the economy at large. The Cairo TApp captured the immense potential of ICT for innovation and entrepreneurship that spurs growth and ultimately leads to more jobs. Policymakers have taken notice and it is sure to attract even more attention from domestic and foreign investors. Beyond competitions, the sector will need a steady stream of young people with the right skills for its continued growth.  This will require an expansion of top-notch vocational training, and more incubation and acceleration opportunities to help them turn ideas into reality.  

The World Bank has long been engaged with transportation, the other half of the Cairo TApp, for the same reasons it invests in ICT. Transport is vital for economic growth and jobs, and is particularly important to poor people, who rely on it for access to services and economic opportunities.  The congestion in Cairo is sapping productivity by keeping people stuck in traffic, and the emissions it produces are a hazard to public health and the environment.

CDG CairoIn his appreciation of the TApp event, the Minister of Transportation, Hatem Abdel-latif, offered something of a lament for areas the competition did not cover – other critical components of transportation such as railways. I share his view on the importance of all the components and his enthusiasm for the potential benefits that ICT could bring to them. Millions of Egyptians rely on the railways in particular and the safety of the system is critical. In addition to investments in upgraded tracks and signaling, ICT and smart systems can help improve railway safety through more efficient information exchanges and real-time data collection and analysis. ICT is an important part of the arsenal in meeting what are enormous challenges, complementing the many other actions that are needed.  

The Cairo TApp showed that, as daunting as these challenges may seem, there are many ways of tackling them.  Along with the solutions offered by ICT, investments will be required in expanded public transportation and improved traffic management systems.  From our work around the world helping countries with similar issues, we have picked up knowledge and experience which can be applied to even the most intractable challenge. In the same way we helped organize the encounter between ICT and Cairo traffic, we are ready to bring together our international experts with Egyptian experts and stakeholders to help develop solutions. Let me conclude with one final lesson from the Cairo TApp: no problem is too big.

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