In 2017, Paper Airplanes launched the Women in Tech Program, which equips women—particularly marginalized women—with the technical skills required to excel in today’s increasingly digitized economy. The Women in Tech Program offers introductory and advanced courses on such subjects as business analytics, Python programming, and web development.
On October 1st, the Paper Airplanes Women in Tech Program, in partnership with Expedia, hosted a hackathon on sustainable tourism, the first of its kind. This event brought together 35 enthusiastic students from all over the world, many of whom were from the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. Students were placed in groups according to their technical skills and worked in close collaboration with mentors from Expedia. After attending a workshop on some of the technical skills used at Expedia, the teams were given two short weeks to come up with an idea to promote sustainable tourism, develop a web application to bring their idea to life, and pitch their final product to a panel of expert judges. While the judges were blown away by the level of skill, teamwork, and determination that all the teams showed, they were particularly impressed by two projects. In first place was Voluntopia, and the runner-up was Puretour.
Voluntopia was inspired by the growing appeal of eco-friendly options among travelers worldwide. After conducting an in-depth market analysis, Harout Mardirossian, Ruba Aburub, and Farah Fahhoum decided to combine travel, volunteer work, and sustainability into an appealing and user-friendly application. The Voluntopia platform allows travelers to easily find volunteer opportunities and eco-friendly activities while traveling. Depending on the activity, tourists gain points that they can then redeem for free local experiences. This not only promotes sustainable tourism, but also providses a great opportunity for locals to advertise their businesses. The platform’s two-way rating system incentivizes both the tourists and locals and gives the app more credibility.
One of the masterminds behind this project is Farah Fahhoum, a second-year computer engineering student based in Syria. Farah has a strong background in robotics and programming, and through the hackathon, she expanded her skillset to include research and design. She learned Photoshop in two weeks and worked with Ruba Aburub to design the project’s logo. She stated, “Without the hackathon, I would not have learned Photoshop at all.” Alongside Farah, Harout Mardirossian holds a dual-degree in chemistry and computer science, is a graduate of the MIT ReACT program, and currently works at NeedsList as a developer. Since Harout typically works in back-end development, he used the hackathon as an opportunity to advance his front-end development skills. His mentor, David Barmaz, explained, “Harout was the lead developer of the team. He worked long hours after work to ensure a beautiful final product.” Last but not least, Ruba Aburub holds a degree in electrical engineering from Jordan, is also a graduate of the MIT ReACT program, and is now working at Microsoft as an AI and IT support engineer. Ruba was involved in all aspects of the project, from ideation to designing the slides for their presentation.
While the judges selected Voluntopia as the winner of the hackathon, they all strongly agreed that PureTour was a very close runner up. Puretour is an added feature on the Expedia application that promotes sustainable tourism. Through this feature, tourists can book a local tour guide who has been trained in environmental sustainability. The platform includes the ability to hire a local photographer and take cycling tours. This feature not only promotes tourism and sustainability, but also contributes to local economic growth. The mastermind behind this project is Abeer Al-Olabi. Hailing from Syria, Abeer holds a degree in math from the University of Damascus and is now completing a masters in web technology at the Syrian Virtual University. In two weeks, Abeer learned Bootstrap, single-handedly came up with an innovative solution to sustainable tourism, implemented it, and pitched her idea to a panel of judges. Apart from the technical skills she acquired, Abeer greatly improved her communication skills. She said, “I was never used to asking for help. The critical point or change is that the mentors taught me that it is okay to ask for help and support.”
We thanks theWomen in Tech Program, Expedia, and most importantly the students and mentors, for their hard work, which made this year’s hackathon was an incredible success!
About the author: Cayanne Chachati
Cayanne joined Paper Airplanes in the summer of 2020 as an intern in the Women in Tech program and helped develop the curriculum for the Business Analytics 2 course. She quickly realized that she wanted to be more involved in the program and became a program coordinator, specifically focusing on the business analytics courses. Cayanne was born and raised in Syria and has lived in Lebanon and the United States. She attended Harvard University and graduated in 2020 with a degree in political science, and she is currently working as an analyst at the economic consulting firm, Analysis Group.