DPhil student wins Most Innovative Idea

Selena Milanovic and teammates compete in hackathon with innovative idea

Selena and her team during the hackathon

At the end of May, the World Economic Forum Global Shapers community in Oxford organized a four-day long virtual policy-hackathon to create data-driven solutions and policy proposals to address specific challenges that will arise during the COVID-19 recovery phase in the city of Oxford. Engineering Science DPhil Candidate Selena Milanovic took part in the hackathon, and her team won the award for the Most Innovative Idea. We asked Selena about her experience and her team’s winning idea.

Why did you decide to participate?

In a time where we are all struggling to control a global pandemic we should, now more than ever, not adopt an individualistic approach. Instead, we need to encourage interdisciplinary and international collaboration. This is precisely the mission of the Global Shapers Oxford community, which resonates with me greatly. Therefore, I was eager to contribute to a human-centered design of COVID-19 recovery plans.

How did the 4-day hackathon work?

When applying to the hackathon we had to specify our order of preference for working on one of the following four tracks: providing mental health support for NHS workers, supporting the local economy, incentivising community engagement or addressing homelessness. We were then divided in teams, with multiple teams tackling each track. Throughout the workshop we had multiple online talks by experts in each track that helped us get an overview of the problem and were available throughout the hackathon for a consultation.

The aim of each team was to design a viable business plan and a policy memo, proposing a long-term solution to the problem. On the final day, each team pitched their idea with a brief presentation and answered questions by experts in the field. Ultimately, a panel of experts judged all the proposals based on the ideas’ applicability, viability, scalability and originality.

Tell us a little bit about the team you worked with.

We are an incredibly diverse team, both geographically and disciplinarily. The four of us come from Italy, Spain, China and England but are all based in the UK currently. We are students in biomedical engineering, business, law and politics respectively. We didn’t know each other until we were matched on the first day of the hackathon but discovered very quickly that a strong desire for impactful change united us.

What was your team’s proposal?

While the lockdown measures have significantly mitigated the risk of contagion, they also contributed to a drastic increase in domestic abuse and unemployment. With more than 300,000 homeless people in the UK, experts agree that prevention is the most impactful approach to addressing the issue. My team and I drafted a policy memo, proposing the launch of the “Wommie” platform, which in collaboration with the Oxford City Council could link vulnerable individuals with volunteers in the area who can offer safe temporary accommodation. Working on this project has been incredibly rewarding and I can only hope that starting from Oxford, a city known for its generosity, we will be able to facilitate community-wide collaboration for truly impactful change.

How does “Wommie” work?

There is a significant increase in homelessness every year, particularly now due to COVID-19, which is also strongly linked to an increase in domestic abuse due to the lockdown. Hence, more and more women need a safe place where to stay but, according the most recent Oxfordshire Strategic Review of Domestic Abuse, only 6% reach out for help on existing platforms. This is mostly because they are too scared of being categorized as homeless or placed in crowded shelters. Through Wommies, we want every vulnerable woman in Oxford to take a different path; by reaching out through our platform, being assigned to a volunteer in the area who will host her for a few weeks, making the transition to organizational support more organic.

How did you come up with the name “Wommie”?

Since our volunteers offer rooms for vulnerable women, we decided to merge the terms “roomies” and “women”, coining a name that reflects both the means and the target group of our proposal.

What are the next steps in taking Wommie forward?

We are closely collaborating with the World Economic Forum Oxford Global Shapers, aiming to bring our idea to life. Indeed, we are corresponding with the Oxford City Council and other local organizations that are helping rough sleepers in our community and we thus aim to set up our platform as rapidly as possible, so to provide immediate help to those in need. Should our innovative approach be successful, we aim to expand the outreach of our platform to the county and subsequently to the United Kingdom, serving as a global inspiration.

Ultimately, I truly believe that the exceptionally generous and engaged community of the city of Oxford has the potential of being on the forefront of tackling homelessness in the United Kingdom and am therefore thrilled to embark in this endeavour.