How a group of Somalian taxi drivers ended up at a hackathon

20th January, 2015
by Angus Hervey
Community Manager, RHoK Australia

A few months ago, we heard about an really interesting project called the Wheelchair Accessible Transport Drivers Association, or WATDA. They're a group of Somalian taxi drivers who are trying to solve the problems of unemployment and unfair working hours for their local community, while at the same time providing cheaper and more efficient access to taxis for disabled people. Our original contact with them was through Social Traders, a Melbourne based organisation whose work revolves around supporting social enterprises in Australia. Social Traders have a program called The Crunch, which is designed to help social enterprises get on their feet while starting out. WATDA was one of the recent participants in the Crunch - and after going through the Social Traders program they were now ready to get some technical help. We thought we might be able to lend a hand... 

a typical Maxi Taxi

a typical Maxi Taxi

A round of coffees later, and we had the story. The man behind WATDA is Ali Wansari, a Somalian national who first came to Australia in 1999. Along with a number of other Somalian men, he drives what are known as Maxi-Taxis; wheelchair friendly taxis that can be used to transport disabled people. He was frustrated by what he saw taking place in the taxi industry. On the one hand, his fellow taxi drivers were working long hours to make ends meet - often up to six days a week, 14 hours a day. This was having an effect not only on the men themselves, but also on their families and wider community, who hardly ever saw them. 

At the same time, Ali noticed that the Maxi-Taxis weren't being used for disabled services. It turns out that their occupancy rates for disabled people were only at around 14%. And yet, at the same time disability organisations often complained about the high costs of having a dedicated transport providers, often spending millions of dollars a year and yet still having to wait for more than an hour whenever they called for a ride. The solution seemed obvious - why not connect the underutilised Maxi-Taxis with the disability services that were struggling to get cheap and reliable services for their clients?

WATDA knew what their problem was, but they were still trying to work out how to fix it. And they knew that they needed a technological solution - a way of using the power of the internet to help connect to the people that needed them. We said we'd see what we could do, and invited them to attend some of our events. So in late September, Mohamed (a taxi driver) and Di (a volunteer with the organisation) came along to one of our Ideation Nights. This is where some of our more experienced hackers and community members come down for the evening to try and come up with some ideas on how changemakers might go about solving their problems. It's less a hackathon and more of a casual workshop, where people who are only able to contribute a few hours can come down for a night and make a difference. According to Di and Mohamed, WADTA came away from the evening with some great advice on problem definition, and the first flickers of an idea for a booking system for their cabs. 

Ali and his team of hackers at the December hackathon in Melbourne

Ali and his team of hackers at the December hackathon in Melbourne

In early December, we ran our summer hackathon in Melbourne. Ali was one of seven problem owners who pitched their ideas to the assembled hackers. He didn't need to do much convincing - a team quickly formed around WATDA after hearing about the challenges they faced. After some pointed questions, it soon became apparent that before a booking system could actually be developed, WATDA would first need to sort out how they dispatched their various drivers.

Turned out that the current method involved a series of text messages, which often led to confusion and some drivers either doubling up or missing appointments. So the team switched their attention to trying to get a proof of concept for a dispatch system which would allow drivers to coordinate on their smartphones while on the road. By the end of the weekend, they'd come up with a working system which we should now be able to build on during our upcoming RHoLLs. 

WATDA's story is a good example of how many of our problem owners get involved with RHoK, and their commitment to the entire RHoK process has allowed them to make a lot of progress in a short space of time. WATDA's various interactions with the RHoK community have been captured on a video, below. Stay tuned to see what they do next! 

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