More than 21,000 coders and techies entered the 2018 Hajj Hackathon in Jeddah.Amer Hilabi—AFP/Getty Images
It’s often said that Silicon Valley is a tech Mecca, but the actual Islamic holy site has technology chops of its own. More than 2 million Muslims will visit the Saudi Arabian city in August to perform the Hajj pilgrimage—a journey every one of Islam’s 1.8 billion adherents must make during their lifetime, if financially and physically able. Keeping those people safe is no small task for the kingdom’s government: In 2015, more than 2,000 pilgrims were killed in a stampede in Mecca’s Mina neighborhood.
Since then, the Saudi government has invested billions in everything from biometrics to blockchain to keep visitors from more than 160 countries safe and comfortable during their visit. Last year, Saudi Arabia hosted its first “Hajj Hackathon”—with coders and entrepreneurs competing over a 36-hour period to build apps and services to streamline the pilgrimage. The winners were an all-female Saudi team who designed a smartphone app to help non-Arabic speakers translate signage without an Internet connection. They received $500,000 in exchange for a 15% equity stake.
This year, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah is piloting a smart-card initiative with 25,000 pilgrims that will store their identity, medical information, and contact information—and track their location. By modeling this location data, it’s hoped, Saudi authorities will be better able to predict crowd movements and avoid another deadly crush.