Amazon and Huge’s Hackathon Helps Spur Social Good Ideas at Cannes

The winner uses Amazon Alexa to help people walk home safely

Huge and Amazon hosted a hackathon at Cannes focused on solving international issues. Courtesy of Huge
Headshot of Marty Swant

What if Cannes Lions became more like the World Economic Forum’s meeting in Davos, Switzerland by spending the week figuring out how to solve the world’s problems rather than only celebrating last year’s awards or next year’s ROI?

As marketers and technologists continue their meetings on the Croisset this week in Cannes, several teams from agencies spent Tuesday and Wednesday participating in a “change for good” hackathon. The competition—organized by Huge, Amazon and the international advocacy group Global Citizen—aimed to raise awareness for international issues while also creating a platform for teams to develop ideas on the ground to become real products and services benefiting people around the world.

For the two-day event, seven teams—representing Grey New York, McCann Worldgroup Europe, 360i, Dentsu Jayme Syfu, Mobiquity, Xandra Inc. and Connected Lab—built workable concepts around Global Citizen issues. Objectives for projects included ending poverty and hunger, improving health, promoting gender equality and gaining access to clean water.

“There’s so much creative power that concentrates here every year that it’s inspiring for us to capitalize on all the energy and make positive social change,” said Huge global CEO Michael Koziol.

While internet giants such as Google, Facebook and Snap Inc. create beach havens and art installations to woo marketers, this was the first year Amazon participated in the Cannes Lions Festival for Creativity as a way to both promote Amazon Web Services and Amazon Alexa, the company’s voice AI platform. This was also the first year that Huge has had a presence of its own at Cannes.

The competition took over a third of an area known as the Innovation Palais. On hand were mentors from Huge’s design, strategy, storytelling and technology divisions to mentor teams alongside representatives from Amazon.

According to Koziol, every major holding company—other than Publicis, which decided not to participate in awards events this year—applied to take part in the hackathon.

Koziol said the teams were scored based on a range of criteria including a project’s potential social impact, feasibility, organization, user experience, engagement and market strategy.

While ideas submitted included a way to assist Alzheimer’s patients in remembering daily routines, a “smart buoy” to test water quality and an interactive podcast, the winning submission focused on helping women arrive home safely at night. The concept, titled “Walk With Me,” uses Amazon Alexa to create the “first female AI bodyguard.” (The team cites the root word for Alexa, Alexandros, which means “defender of man.”)

Here’s how it works: A global free-data smartphone app powered by Alexa pins a caller’s location while talking them through their walk, similar to how the caller might talk with a human friend and turns off right when they arrive home. If something goes wrong along the way—if they cry out for help or go unexpectedly silent for too long, for example—Alexa turns on both the front and back cameras to become a “witness” while also sending an alert of the location to local police and other contacts.

Along with helping the caller, Walk With Me would provide data to Global Citizen, which would be used to help lobby local politicians and brands to install street lights and cameras or change laws relating to harassment.

This isn’t the first hackathon Huge has hosted, although many in the past have been held internally within Huge at the agency’s Brooklyn headquarters nearby the Brooklyn Bridge along the East River rather than the French Riviera. Past competitions have sought ideas related to augmented reality and social good. One past winner during South by Southwest 2017 was Notifica, which helps immigrants notify friends and family if they’re ever detained by U.S. immigration and customers officials.

“We’re basically hacking Cannes,” Koziol, who also served as a judge, said. “As Cannes looks at what it wants to be and how it wants to participate in the future, we think this can be very valuable in the future.”

The group of judges—which, along with Koziol, included computer scientist and social entrepreneur Sue Black, Amazon EU Alexa director Fabrice Rousseau and Global Citizen CTO Mark Lehmann—spent an hour deliberating.

Among the judges for the competition was VaynerMedia CEO Gary Vaynerchuk, whom Amazon invited to participate based on the agency’s work in the voice AI world. He said it was difficult to decide which project which might have the most impact on society between a variety of important causes—choosing to put more weight on which idea might be the most feasible.

“Judging the issues on the criteria of its social impact, I almost felt uncomfortable in deciding what was more important than what,” he said. “So on that front, I almost defaulted to which of these are important issues, and let me look at the feasibility and the execution to figure out what I thought had the biggest impact.”

Vaynerchuk, who has been bullish lately on voice AI, voted for the interactive podcast concept created by Connected Lab. However, he said he’d like to see technologists and marketers select a time every year to focus on social good—maybe in another location elsewhere in the world.

“I think every organization and company needs to ask themselves are they passionate about any issue and then be involved with it,” he said. “To me it’s a very, very binary question about, ‘Is this something you actually give a crap about?'”

@martyswant Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.