Map showing major Hajj routes. Source: http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/themes/hajj/the_journey/routes.aspx

Every year, around two million pilgrims from all over the world arrive in Saudi Arabia to fulfill one of the five pillars of Islam — pilgrimage to Mecca. With activities spanning over several days and at multiple locations, efforts have been made in recent years to optimize the experience by enhancing its safety and informativeness. This is where UX and technology come into play.

A mobile Hajj

With hundreds of religion-focused apps available on Apple Store and Google Play, services dedicated to Hajj and ‘Umrah (pilgrimage outside of Hajj season) have been around for several years. These include, among others, Manasikana, Navi Hajj, Hajj Navigator, and Mutawef. What purpose do they specifically serve?

The latter, for instance, allows its user to track fellow pilgrims so that their location can be checked at any given moment. Others also introduce checklists, where Hajj participants mark both key activities required to complete Hajj, and facultative trips in Mecca and Medina. While designed with varying focus on interaction and UX, they all have one thing in common — they center not only around the activities, but also logistics and user convenience within a crowded environment.

With booming numbers of users, whose peak reaches once pilgrims arrive in Saudi, one can imagine the potential feedback from hundreds of thousands of participants, and the wealth of usability data that may be collected in just a couple days.

Hajj of 2017 was most likely the first time UX researchers collected extensive user data to understand the activities and biggest pain points of online participants of Hajj. Most importantly, feedback was gathered from users of varying levels of technology expertise, giving unique insight into pilgrims of diverse backgrounds.

Pain points

In an extensive research performed throughout and after Hajj, Khalid Majrashi, assistant professor of computer science at the Institute of Public Administration, Saudi Arabia, was able to name several major pain points reported by pilgrims. These include, among others:

Accuracy of localization crucial for the validity of Hajj (in the past, such a flaw resulted in lowering user trust),

Problems with network connection,

Crowd management (need for live streams from key areas, or an automated system inspired by traffic management, as a stampede preventative measure (which most recently took place in 2015)),

Enlargement of touch-sensitive areas in app,

Improving legibility (i.e. font enlargement option).

With the inestimable value of these findings, pinpointing the most crucial areas for improvement, it has already been announced, that researchers will continue collecting user feedback during Hajj of 2018.

The Hajj Hackathon

Religious activities surrounding Hajj are just one side of the challenges ahead of both pilgrims and Saudi Arabian authorities, which aim at reducing information chaos and eliminating potential threats.

This year’s Hajj is preceded roughly three weeks by Hajj Hackathon, an event organized by Saudi Arabia’s Federation for Cybersecurity, Programming, and Drones, and supported by Google. As advertised on the official site, participants have the opportunity to “join the brightest minds for the biggest challenge yet: The Hajj”. What exact tasks will they be facing?

Source: http://hajjhackathon.sa/en

Along with above-mentioned crowd management and communication, Hajj Hackathon organizers are also searching for solutions that would optimize arrival, departure, and moving about the Holy Cities, as well as provide shelter, alimentation, and cleanliness. Technology developed throughout the three days will be judged, in equal parts, through the prism of design (0-5 pts), simplicity (0-5 pts), creativity (0-5 pts), and impact (0-5pts). The Grand Reward will be awarded to the winning team on August 3rd, three weeks shy of Eid Al-Adha.

Hajj and the future of mass event technology

With Internet steadily penetrating even the poorest areas of the globe, it is to be expected that Saudi authorities will continue to look towards to optimize the world’s most challenging annual event. With millions of people gathering in the Holy Cities during Hajj, even the smallest mistakes or information chaos could take a unspeakable toll on the safety of thousands.

Last, but not least, finding effective organization solutions during Hajj may set an example for other global events, potentially protecting the safety of millions to come. Hence, Hajj Hackathon may give birth to technology applied not only in Mecca, but also in the farthest ends of the planet.

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