Hackathon for Cuba draws online activists to Miami

Technology experts gather in Miami to brainstorm and develop ways for Cubans to access unrestricted Web

Jose Pimento, a developer at the Hackathon for Cuba.

Technology experts gathered in Miami Saturday to brainstorm ways to circumvent Internet restriction in Cuba, considered one of the least connected countries in the Western hemisphere.

The Hackathon for Cuba began with an opening ceremony on Friday, but participating computer programmers didn’t get to work until Saturday. Their mission is to develop a way for Cubans to access the Internet free of government restrictions. They plan on doing so by creating a link, distributed by email, which would allow users to tap into an unobstructed World Wide Web.

"We think social media and instant communication by all means is the key to new digital activism,” Serguei Hernandez, 34, a web developer and information technology student at Miami-Dade University, told Al Jazeera. He is one of the hackers participating in the event.

“In Tunisia, in Egypt, the people were communicating through SMS (texting), through social media and the digital activism kept them organized, and that's what we want to achieve for Cuba, for the people to have access to the information they need to have so they can get organized and ultimately change the way things are there," he said.

Hernandez, who left Cuba eight years ago for the U.S., said the type of web-in-email system the hackers are working on comes in a variety of versions.

“The one we are working on has a lot of features."

Another developer, Jose Pimienta, 25, who came to the U.S. from Cuba five years ago, developed Vinylfy, a social network for record collectors, with a friend. The duo won $22,000 for their creation at SuperConf, a gathering for web developers and designers in Miami.

"We'll be helping our friends and family in the island to have more access to information," Pimienta said.

Natalia Martinez, chief innovation and technology officer at Roots of Hope (Raices de Esperanza, in Spanish) the nonprofit organization hosting the event, said the hackathon’s purpose was not only to “break down or circumvent barriers” Cubans deal with in communication, but to also start “conversation around the impact of technology in Cuba.”

Martinez added that the event aims to "build solutions that are specific to the Cuban context and that adhere to the legal framework of both the U.S. and Cuba."

Cuban dissident and online activist Yoani Sanchez delivered the event’s opening remarks on Friday via Skype.

Lisette Garcia, a spokeswoman for Roots of Hope, said it was a question by Sanchez to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey during a visit to the U.S. last year that got the ball rolling for the hackathon.

Sanchez's question was whether Twitter would keep its text-to-tweet service, one of the ways she is able to access the social media network. Dorsey assured her that it would.

Sanchez, who recorded a video message for the conference, has more than half a million followers on Twitter

On Saturday, computer programmers and others developed ideas for smartphone applications that could be used to address the challenges citizens face on the communist island: censorship, limited access to cellphones and the Internet, and expensive service.

Garcia said severe penalties exist for Cubans if they’re found accessing web pages containing information the government considers subversive.

She added that Cuban authorities routinely blocks Internet pages that it finds objectionable, such as the home page of the Ladies in White dissident group and U.S. government-funded news broadcaster Radio and TV Marti. Critics of President Raul Castro accuse the government of withholding access to control the people.

But access to the Internet is growing. According to the U.N.'s International Telecommunications Union, roughly 26 percent of Cubans reported using the Internet in 2012. That was up from just under 4 percent a decade before.

"One main challenge is that the Cuban government seems deeply ambivalent about the Internet," said Emily Parker, a former State Department policy adviser and author of the upcoming book, "Now I Know Who My Comrades Are," a portrait of Internet activists in China, Cuba and Russia.

"Authorities know Web access is necessary for economic 'modernization,' but also recognize that the spread of the Internet would threaten their control over the population," Parker said.

The Cuban government has taken some steps to increase access during the past year. In June, authorities opened more than 100 Internet cafes around the island.

However, the $4.50 an hour fee made it too expensive for most Cubans who earn an average $20 a month salary.

Cuban bloggers like Sanchez have found ways to get across the digital roadblocks, such as saving posts to flash drives and publishing them through an Internet connection at an embassy or hotel, or sending text messages to twitter.

"They don't have many readers on the island, but they can connect to the rest of the world," Parker said.

"They tell the stories that Cuba's official media outlets don't report."

Hackathons have sprung up around the nation to tackle issues ranging from gun violence to immigration.

In November, journalists, activists and tech experts in 20 U.S. and Latin American cities got together in 48-hour meet-ups to produce apps, websites and programs to help migrants and those who research and assist them.

Roots of Hope organized the event in conjunction with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Roots of Hope is a network of students and young professionals aiming to empower youth on the island. Among their initiatives is a drive to collect and send cellphones to Cuba. More than 500 have been sent so far.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press. Wilson Dizard contributed to this report. 

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