We’re (Literally) Hacking Away at the Next Brilliant Way to Verify Vaccine Certificates – and Address Other Urgent Real-World Needs

Recent hackathon paired university students with industry professionals to (virtually) solve one of the most complex challenges society faces today.

Two people look at a computer monitor
by Alex Fryer
August 31, 2021

Hackathons often hold the perception of only being appropriate for coders or ‘techies’. But that’s not true! They start with a problem or challenge, so the inclusion of non-technical participants adds a well-rounded richness to the concepts that are created. In fact, they are fantastic forums for innovation and creative thinking, particularly when the challenge is complex. That’s why Zebra Technologies is such a great advocate of hackathons.

Helping Us Build Better Solutions

We recently decided to sponsor a hackathon run by a fantastic university society, R U Hacking? based at the University of Reading in the UK to see if our approach to secure COVID-19 vaccine certification and verification would hold up in the real world. As doses continue to be administered, barcode and QR code-based credentialing strategies have grown in prominence as mechanisms to enable domestic and international movement of populations. However, the topic of vaccine verification comes with complex ethical, logistical and technical challenges that need to be overcome before we can roll out such a system with cross-border – or even localized private/public sector – interoperability and trust.

So, we challenged teams from the R U Hacking? society to evolve the concept Zebra and the IOTA Foundation collaboratively mapped out into real-world applications that could be easily executed by the hospitality, travel, retail, healthcare and even government sectors, among others. Whilst it was a complex, multi-faceted challenge, we were confident in the participants’ creativity as well as the environment set up by the R U Hacking? society to foster the creativity this challenge demanded!

R U Hacking? organizes events and hackathons throughout the year that enable students to interact with industry professionals from both inside and outside the university – Zebras included.

Though hackathons are typically run in-person, this one was conducted remotely for obvious reasons. This presented a number of logistical challenges for the team at the R U Hacking? society, like the need to connect participants from several different countries together to build their concepts. (Thank goodness for social media/collaborative communication tools such as Discord. Participants, organizers, and sponsors report it was easier than expected to stay in sync.)

The virtual aspect also posed a challenge to Zebra as a sponsor. Whilst we are increasingly focused as a company on building software solutions that transform raw data into actionable intelligence, software is not an independent actor. It must be strategically paired with the right hardware components if you want that intel to reach the right people at the right time – which is what ultimately defines its value. So, we had to figure out which products teams would need for this hackathon challenge: does the mission require enterprise-grade mobile computers, scanners, printers, tablets and/or something else? Then we had to figure out how to get the selected hardware components to hundreds of participants scattered across several geographies so teams could effectively build their concepts in unison.

Overcoming One Challenge to Solve Another

We decided to break the challenge into two challenges, one big challenge and one small challenge. The big challenge sought a demonstration of the concept built by each team, which required some analysis of the technical systems available for vaccination certification and verification. Meanwhile, the small challenge was set up to focus more on the solution – the non-technical considerations for such a system. (How would the certificate verifier check the document or digital record being presented? Was the proposed solution easy for every type and size of organization to implement? And would every citizen be able to prove vaccination?)

With this structure defined, one would think it would be easy to decide which technology tools we should give the participants, but it wasn’t.

In an ideal world, one in which the hackathon would have been in person, we would have given each team a Zebra label/card printer, a Zebra handheld enterprise mobile computer and/or scanner, and a suite of software tools with which to build their concept for the vaccine certification and verification system. (These Zebra hardware components are already used for processing COVID-19 test results and certificates in different settings around the world.)

However, as the hackathon was virtual, we were unable to send printers or scanners. Although, as long as the user had an internet connection, we knew software tools could be accessed! (The cloud is a beautiful thing!) So, we provided access to the ZebraDesigner tool, a simple software tool used for designing labels (i.e., a vaccination certificate label). And our partner The IOTA Foundation provided access to its distributed ledger platform, the Tangle for the secure exchange of data.

Despite not being able to access our hardware products, a key limitation to a full-scale solution build, we were incredibly impressed with the participants’ ability to address our challenge – and in 24 hours, no less!

Our winner was SafeCred, who addressed the big challenge by developing a solution that uses the IOTA distributed ledger to create an account and identity for each individual who wants a COVID-19 vaccine before creating a decentralized identifier document (DID) to be posted on the Tangle. The vaccine information (type of dose, date of dose, provider of dose) is digitally signed using the DID and stored in a verifiable credential, which can be shared and instantly verified. The application prompts the user for this information locally in their terminal and then provides a link for the user to follow to see their DID in the ledger. The vaccine credential is only verifiable with certain information, so it is private. And because the DID is immutably stored on the Tangle, it is also secure.

We thought their consideration of the real-life practical challenges, the quality and effort that went into the demo, and the association to the existing activity were superb. We were also impressed by the quality of their concept considering their previous lack of exposure to Zebra and IOTA Foundation’s technology platforms.

The Biggest Lesson Learned

Every organizer, sponsor and participant overcame the many obstacles thrown their way fantastically well, and that led to a flawless event in our opinion. In fact, this event further cemented Zebra’s support for hackathons. They are a fantastic mechanism to foster innovation and generate ideas when dealing with all sorts of complex challenges – not just the technically complex ones. Kudos again to the R U Hacking? society’s organization of the event. We look forward to sponsoring their hackathons in the future and hope to see some of you there next time!

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Editor’s Note:

You can learn more about the vaccine credentialing system Zebra and The IOTA Foundation have been developing here.

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Alex Fryer
Alex Fryer is currently the Intelligent Edge Solutions (IES) Regional Product Manager and responsible for driving the go-to-market in EMEA for Zebra’s IES portfolio.
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