MPA Program at CCNY
Tarik Fathallah and his multinational team won a competition hosted by MIT with a project that will use artificial intelligence to help people fact-check rumors about COVID-19 and obtain accurate information about the virus and its transmission.
As the pandemic spread, MPA student Tarik Fathallah was determined to stay engaged, continue advancing his career in social impact, and help resolve the public health crisis gripping the globe.
“I needed to find a way to turn this whole experience around,” said Fathallah. “I felt trapped, and I needed to do something that would make me feel as if I was still part of something, still contributing something, and not just stuck at home.”
Tarik, currently a social innovation fellow at the Colin Powell School, wanted to brainstorm unconventional solutions with other creative minds. As an immigrant from Morocco, he also wanted to help African countries hit especially hard by the outbreak.
Turning to his network, Tarik prolifically emailed, texted, and messaged through every possible medium, and discovered the perfect opportunity, the MIT COVID-19 Challenge: Africa Takes on COVID-19.
This intense, 48-hour virtual hackathon organized by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) pulled together teams of people with diverse professional experiences, skill sets, and countries of origin to rapidly generate solutions to specific problems related to the COVID-19 outbreak in Africa.
Remote Teamwork on a Global Scale
The hackathon’s 1500 participants were initially assigned to one of a dozen themes that included equipping health care facilities, preventing transmission of the virus, and addressing economic livelihoods during the pandemic.
Participants then coalesced into teams using Slack, the popular app for group work. They introduced themselves, briefly pitched their ideas, and formed teams based on mutual interest and compatible skills.
Tarik landed on a team of six – including three immigrants from Africa – hailing from the United States, France, and India who brought together expertise in education, business, big data, user experience design, and tech startups.
Although the diversity of skills and knowledge made the team more competitive, it also presented challenges, as team members approached the project from their professional silos.
“If you’re a painter, you want to paint. If you’re a carpenter, you want to build. If you’re a pilot, you want to fly,” Tarik explained.
Tarik encouraged his teammates to reach beyond their silos and converge around a common mission. “We all need to share our views and be heard,” he said, “but we have to change our mindset and focus on what we came to do.”
“At the end of the day, we will be measured by the impact delivered, not the medium by which it is delivered,” he said.
Focusing on Community Needs
The team was tasked with combating misinformation about the virus and its transmission. To start, Tarik and his teammates reached out to people on the ground in African countries to get a first-hand perspective on their “pain points,” or areas of greatest need.
This bottom-up, user-oriented method of problem-solving is a skill Tarik says he has developed as an MPA student. “A running theme in the program is that social impact requires seeing things from the community directly and not seeing things from 30,000 feet,” he said.
In two fast-paced days of competition, the team cycled through three possible product designs, each time returning to the drawing board.
They grappled with how to narrow their focus to an issue they could really solve. “We aren’t going to be able to solve five problems at once; we have to focus on the one that we can have the most impact on,” Tarik said.
The iterations ensured a well-crafted final product: an artificial intelligence platform that helps users with varying devices and levels of technological access receive and extract accurate information about the virus.
Tarik was nominated by his team to deliver the final pitch and weather the judges’ post-presentation questions. His clarity, persuasiveness, and strong public speaking skills helped secure the win for the team. “I was nervous, but I thought to myself, we all built the car, and now someone has to get in and drive it to the finish line,” he said.
The team will now have a chance to develop its proposal with software developers and MIT partners. Since the hackathon win, Tarik and two of his original teammates – Marilyn Osei and Steve Tchuenté Kayo – have moved quickly to take their solution from initial design to operational prototype. Under the new project name AccuroLab, the team has secured funding for the next stages of the project from JOGL, an international social innovation platform.
A challenge will be to keep the project low-cost and high-impact while scaling it to a linguistically, culturally, and economically diverse continent that is nearly three times the size of the US, said Tarik.
As a social innovator working to solve social problems in Africa while living in New York City, Tarik reflected on leadership and social change in a transnational context.
“You don’t have to be of the community to help the community,” he said. “The most important thing is to really know what the community’s experiences and restraints are, and dedicate your time and resources to developing solutions.”
Follow Tarik and his team's progress on the AccuroLab page on JOGL.