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Hackathons: Where's the value?

Read time 7min 30sec
Tumelo Baloyi
Tumelo Baloyi

Not a week goes by, it seems, without a hackathon being announced somewhere in South Africa.

At these marathon coding competitions, which can last anywhere between 24 and 76 hours, contestants eat, sleep and sweat code. Adopted by public and private institutions alike, they’re seen as a quick-fire way to source ideas and talent. But, given the frequency, resources and effort involved, how many solutions generated at hackathons actually get implemented? And, are they worth the ROI for sponsors?

Adrian Schofield, programme consultant at IITPSA, says the perceived value of hackathons comes from their ‘greenhouse effect’ of forcing the rapid growth of ideas into a workable form.

“For the sponsors of hackathons, it’s about the opportunity to find a solution in a short period of time, but the event also has to be run properly to channel the efforts of participants into producing something tangible.”

Despite their origins, it isn’t always about software development, he says.

“Increasingly, we’re looking at bringing diverse groups of people together so they see the contribution other participants can make in the development of solutions. This way, it isn’t only the sponsors that benefit.”

“Some might say that hackathons are useless or don’t bring any opportunities, but every career opportunity I’ve had came through hackathons.”

Tumelo Baloyi

From the participants’ perspective, Schofield says, hackathons provide an opportunity to put ideas into practice with the assistance of people young developers might not normally come into contact with, such as analysts and business people. “They also give the opportunity to create a network, to discover how others think about the challenges and use that knowledge gained elsewhere in their working lives.”

TADHackJHB

In October last year, I attended the TADHackJHB, a 35-hour hack held at MTN’s Innovation Centre in Randburg, Johannesburg. It’s an online hackathon that simultaneously takes place at various cities across the globe, with each hackathon live-streamed on YouTube.

Lesego Ramela, a 24-year-old coder from Soweto, and her team, ‘The Bit Rebels’, developed a mobile app at the event to help connect landlords and potential tenants in townships.

She says curiosity led her to try coding. “I didn’t know about coding as a career choice until I got to college. I wanted to register for IT, but when I heard about software development, I had to try it out.

“I’ve learnt how to code in Angular and Node.js and how to integrate different APIs within applications.”

Self-taught developer Talhah Patelia stands out from the crowd, and not just because he’s tall beyond his 14 years. There’s also a robot next to him, the only one in the whole hackathon.

“This is Scietmeer (skit-meer),” he says, pointing to the robot, which is essentially a mobile science lab he built to access hard-to-reach places and tough terrain. “It comes equipped with sensors and an arm to gather data from water, soil and temperature samples.

“It also has a camera to collect photogrammetry information (it uses spliced images to create a 3D model of an area) that can then be sent to a VR headset to simulate a walk-through of the actual environment.”

Scietmeer, which is about the height of a small dog, was coded using Python and C++. Patelia was presented with TADHackJHB’s ‘Rising Star’ award.

The professional ‘hackathoner’

Somewhat of a veteran at just 21 years old, Tumelo Baloyi could be called a professional ‘hackathoner’. Baloyi has entered about 70 hackathons since his first in 2013, when he was still in high school. He and his partner at this event, Thabang Mamashela, won the TADHackJHB for an app they call Charon, which allows community members to report stolen cellphone tower batteries.

“I’m trying to push my team to engage more with ministers, to let them know that we can host as many hackathons as we want, but we need to ask, ‘when are we picking up these solutions?’”

Muzi Ntombela, Centre for Public Service Innovation

Baloyi has won a number of other hackathons, including the government-funded Service Delivery Ignite Hack athon in 2018. He also won last year’s ITWeb Security Summit #SS19Hack with Thuso, an app that helps survivours communicate after a natural disaster, such as a flood.

Baloyi’s day job at insurer Workerslife is as a full-stack developer of applications for web, mobile and desktop.

“Hackathons are a hobby of mine,” he says.

“Some might say that hackathons are useless or don’t bring any opportunities, but every career opportunity I’ve had came through hackathons.”

He says it’s up to the developer to make the most of their ideas.

“We should let go of this idea that you can wait around for someone to pick up your solution.”

I ask Baloyi if any of his winning apps are making him money.

“Yho. A lot,” he says.

Red tape and rewards

He estimates that Hive, a rewards programme app, has made around R250 000 to date. It was initially developed for a public sector hackathon to reward citizens for reporting service delivery problems to their municipalities. When it wasn’t picked up, he took it to market himself.

“Now it’s a platform for companies to create a rewards programme for employees, based on performance. The points can then be redeemed for things like extra leave days.”

He says there are 10 companies using the platform (he can’t name them), all of which pay him a monthly licence fee.

On the subject of hackathons organised by the public sector, he says: “I’ll never work with them again.”

At the Service Delivery Ignite Hackathon, he and his team developed Keaphela (Sesotho for ‘I’m healthy’), a decentralised medical info platform. This, in theory, would then sync with hospitals and clinics.

But that is as far as it went.

“It was a national healthcare project, but the Department of Health wasn’t involved in the hack, so we tried to liaise with other government departments, but nothing came of it.”

Muzi Ntombela, CIO at the Centre for Public Service Innovation (CPSI), agrees with Baloyi. “We’re not doing enough with the solutions from our hackathons. I think we’re also creating high expectations in these kids, but then we don’t pick up their solutions.

“The CPSI is focused on public sector innovation, but we’re not the ones that have to implement a solution; that’s up to the respective departments.

“I’m sitting with piles and piles of solutions that have got lost within the system. This is why I’m trying to push my team to engage more with ministers, to let them know that we can host as many hackathons as we want, but we need to ask, ‘when are we picking up these solutions?’”

Mixo Ngoveni and Tiyani Nghonyama met at a hackathon and started a company called Geekulcha in 2013.

It holds about two hackathons a month, across the country, often in out-of-the-way places like Kimberley.

“Hackathons bring like-minded people together,” says Ngoveni.

“We present them with challenges and ask how we can solve particular problems using their different expertise and interests. The newbies need to learn from the skilled coders so we invite those who are constantly winning back to ensure the skills transfer.”

Commercial reality

He adds that Geekculcha, like Ntombela, would also like to change the fact that solutions tend to die out after these events. “We’re planning a post-hack programme this year so that teams aren’t just forgotten. We’re looking at different ways of keeping them going, like opening our office space to them and connecting them with other parts of our network.”

So do hackathon solutions ever see the light of day?

Schofield says: “I can’t say I know of any solutions we’re using today that came from a hackathon, partly because you don’t always see the direct link between the activity of the hack and its output. If a company sponsors a hackathon looking for a particular solution, they want to protect it. So it could take a while before something from a hackathon is turned into a commercial product.

“Maybe it’s one of the oddities of hackathons, that we don’t make a big song and dance at the end of the short period of time because the product still needs further development to be turned into a commercial reality,” he concludes.

This article was originally published in the March 2020 issue of ITWeb Brainstorm magazine.

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