The day began knee-deep in mud, and ended with talk of databases and smartphone apps.

A first-of-its-kind gathering on Saturday combined Native Hawaiian principles and innovative technologies, kicking off the Purple Prize, a summer challenge to solve meaningful problems and raise awareness of indigenous issues.

Participants came together at the Kamakakuokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies in Manoa, listened to speakers, and brainstormed with Post-It notes — much as attendees would at any workshop. But first they got their hands dirty working in Kanewai loi, taro fields thought to be 800 years old.

Nicole Hori, nuclear engineer and avid civic hacker, works in the Kanewai taro fields before a brainstorming session.

Nicole Hori, nuclear engineer and avid civic hacker, works in the Kanewai taro fields before a brainstorming session.

Ryan Ozawa

“This is something different that both communities have not done before,” said Donavan Kealoha, co-founder of the Purple Maia Foundation, which is organizing the Purple Prize. “We have the cultural community talking about APIs and geolocation services, and techies working in the taro patches and experiencing connectedness.”

The Purple Maia Foundation is a non-profit that runs dozens of workshops and after-school classes to empower underserved youth through technology. While the Purple Prize drew a largely grown-up crowd, it was solidly rooted in the group’s work with middle-school students.

“Some of the inspiration for Purple Prize came from working with kids and seeing through their eyes what technology means to them, and what problem solving means to them,” said Forest Frizzell, who has worked in technology for more than a decade and serves on the foundation’s board of directors. “We don’t want to tell people what to work on or how to build it, we want them to figure out their own path.”

Connecting Technology To Culture

The Purple Prize is modeled in part on hackathons — intensive and often competitive events where software developers, designers and other creatives come together to imagine, design and build something quickly, usually in one day or over a weekend. Hawaii has seen a number of hackathons, highlighting specific data sets (such as city government or NASA data) or developer tools.

But Purple Prize organizers wanted participants to dig a little deeper, and spend more time identifying problems to solve and ideas to build.

Purple Prize participants walk along the auwai, or irrigation ditch system, that feeds the Kānewai taro fields in Manoa.

Purple Prize participants walk along the auwai, or irrigation ditch system, that feeds the Kanewai taro fields in Manoa.

Ryan Ozawa

“Our goal was to solve community based problems, but not through the lens of building something solely around consumerism,” Frizzell said. “What I found inspiring was that the consumerism thing didn’t even come up here; we didn’t have to steer away from that, because people naturally wanted to talk about how we could do something better.”

To help them along, participants were invited to work in the taro patches and walk along the auwai, or irrigation ditch system, that nourishes them. They also heard from speakers including Hawaiian scholar and practitioner Manu Aluli Meyer, artist and designer Keola Rapozo, social entrepreneur and foundation co-founder Olin Lagon, and Kamuela Enos, director of social enterprises at MA’O Organic Farms.

“Instead of technologies to create money, let’s develop technologies to create mana.” — Kamuela Enos, MA’O Organic Farms

“Instead of technologies to create money, let’s develop technologies to create mana,” or energy, Enos said. “Indigenous technologies, that’s what Hawaii has to offer this sector.”

Referencing battles over urban territory depicted in the TV series ‘The Wire,’ he added, “I think there are some corners we can start taking.”

Many speakers pointed out that there’s no reason to draw lines between the technical and the spiritual and natural.

Purple Maia Foundation board member Napali Souza blows the conch shell to call the gathering to order.

Purple Maia Foundation board member Napali Souza blows the conch shell to call the gathering to order.

Ryan Ozawa

“Groundwater doesn’t stop rising because it’s under pavement,” said Annie Koh, a Ph.D. student in Urban and Regional Planning at UH Manoa. “The trade winds don’t stop blowing at the city limits.”

The Purple Prize “serves to bridge a gap that, through our lack of care, we’ve allowed to develop between these communities,” said Dan Leuck, who leads tech firms Ikayzo and Contix and who helped develop the Purple Prize program.

“I also like that it’s a departure from all the projects attempting to replicate the way things are done in Silicon Valley,” he added. “Hawaii’s tech community must be its own.”

Is There an App for That?

Over the course of the morning, participants proposed ideas for apps, tools and other solutions centered on community and cultural challenges. Organizers grouped the ideas into broad themes that emerged from the collective: kupuna (seniors), water, food, storytelling, mapping and databases.

Attendees formed teams to flesh out some of the ideas. One group proposed an app that would allow people to look up moon phases and tides, and include historic and cultural context like fishing, planting and harvesting schedules. Other teams suggested matching seniors and would-be growers with gardens, or helping neighborhoods share tools ranging from garden equipment to papa kui ai and pohaku kui ai (tools to make poi).

Hawaiian food fueled a number of conversations about ways to merge indigenous knowledge with cutting-edge technology.

Hawaiian food fueled a number of conversations about ways to merge indigenous knowledge with cutting-edge technology.

Ryan Ozawa

There was a proposal to enhance the Papakilo database of historical collections with an Application Programming Interface and geolocation data, and another to map food sources across the islands. What if there was a wearable technology that could help people cultivate a relationship to the land that they’re standing on? Or a virtual 3-D museum of Hawaiian artifacts, or an augmented reality tool that depicts what an area might have looked like in ancient times?

Kealoha said he was impressed with the ideas that emerged.

“I didn’t have a particular desired outcome, specific apps I wanted to produce or technologies to develop,” he said. “But I loved seeing the two-way conversations starting to happen, and I trust that we’ve set up the process to continue those conversations, to make sure that information sharing happens, and that cool stuff gets built,” he said.

Frizzell said he also didn’t know what to expect; but he felt that everyone came with pure intentions, which brought out a natural instinct to help.

“I think the process had something to do with it; the people in attendance had something to do with it; but I also think it’s innate in humans to want to try and solve big problems,” he said. “Maybe we’re just not always given opportunities like this, to think through things with this lens.”

Looking Beyond Day One

At the end of the day, participants traded contact information in hopes of continuing their collaboration and submitting a final concept to the Purple Prize jury later this month. From there, teams will be selected to advance, provided with feedback and mentorship, and urged to build prototypes to present at a “demo day” in mid-October.

From the selection of finalists to choosing an ultimate Purple Prize winner, the four key criteria are the same. The ideas need to be creative, useful and impactful, bold and audacious, and pono — serving the overarching theme of “aloha aina,” or “love of the land,” while merging the ancestral with the contemporary.

Organizers stressed that anyone could still participate, even if they weren’t able to attend Saturday’s launch. There are several workshops planned, and updates will be posted to the Purple Prize website to encourage teams to form on the neighbor islands.

Software developer Kyle Oba helps his team map out their idea for a community transparency app.

Software developer Kyle Oba helps his team map out their idea for a community transparency app.

Ryan Ozawa

“This is just the start,” Frizzell said. “We want folks who weren’t able to be here to be able to add their energy and resources and brainpower and helping to continue the cool conversations that are happening.”

But those who made it on Saturday were glad that they did.

“I am really impressed with the openness of the participants, and the speakers’ focus on human-centered technology,” said Kyle Oba, a programmer who runs the software design and development firm Pas de Chocolat with his wife Cara. “It was really a special location; and I believe it helped ground the brainstorming and discussions within our local culture and environment.”

Genesis Leong, who organizes community events, including TEDxHonolulu, said, “I’ve been involved with many projects, both through analog and digital ways, and what really set this event apart was the panel discussion… the plea to approach these new ideas truly honoring kaona or Hawaiian meanings.”

“I am looking forward most to seeing these ideas fill the needs of our community,” she said.

“With any technology challenge, there’s the hope to make the world a better place; but this starts with a foundation of Hawaiian culture,” said Nicole Hori, a nuclear engineer and maker who has participated in several hackathons. “I think whatever is created will be something that could not have existed anywhere else.”

“This opportunity is such a gift, and I hope more people will get involved,” she added.

To see more photos from the event, visit Ryan’s album on Flickr. For more information on the Purple Prize, visit PurplePrize.com.

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