Comms minister puts hackathons at core of creating ‘4IR army’

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If government does not show confidence in the solutions produced by young South Africans, it means we are going to continue to consume what is already there.

So said communications and digital technologies minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, speaking to ITWeb after one of her department’s entities – NEMISA – virtually hosted the second instalment of its data science hackathon.

Across the globe, hackathons – also known as hack days or hack fests – have emerged as powerful mechanisms to surface co-created, technology-enabled innovation to tackle specific business and social challenges.

In SA, hackathons have gained considerable ground in recent years, with a number of organisations – both in the private and public sphere – hosting these events aimed at cultivating ICT talent and finding solutions to address some of today’s challenges.

Within the local context, hackathons have been hosted to find tech solutions for issues such as the scourge of gender-based violence, foster early childhood development, find COVID-19 solutions and address public service delivery challenges, to name a few.

Communications and digital technologies minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.
Communications and digital technologies minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.

Ndabeni-Abrahams believes that if innovations, some of which emanate from these hackathons, are not cultivated, then that makes the country or any government stagnant in terms of innovation.

“If you look at the private sector, they have innovators, every time hackers – looking for new ways of diversifying business or making sure their businesses are efficient.

“As the South African government, we should take pride in the fact that we have young people who have great talent that can provide solutions to the problems we face.”

The NEMISA hackathon, a multi-stakeholder partnership of provincial governments, higher learning institutions, youth formations, digital technology experts and data science enthusiasts, sought to engage with government data to unlock insights that could inform policy decisions.

The minister said the COVID-19 challenge called on the organisers to come up with an inclusive approach to hosting the hackathon, which saw 860 participants throughout the country join the virtual event.

The participants looked at local government policies, water issues and other topics. “They did what they know best and they came up with great solutions.

“Collectively, we can collaborate and come up with solutions, not only to address challenges but also to create jobs for other people.”

She reiterated that such initiatives are in line with the department’s mandate of building a “4IR-capable army”, producing data scientists and technicians.

Ndabeni-Abrahams’s ministry has set itself a target of training one million unemployed youth in data science and related skills, to empower them to fill jobs of the future.

Put tech to work

Local organisations that have also championed the hackathon landscape believe these events not only offer an opportunity to use technology for good, but also a way for young people to build something new and disruptive.

Marietjie Engelbrecht, head of marketing at the Cape Innovation and Technology Initiative, says hackathons remain one of the best ways to stimulate ideas and work on innovative solutions for specific problems.

“Over traditional innovation management processes, hackathons have clear advantages,” notes Engelbrecht. “Anyone can participate and they truly are inclusive, agile and promote multi-disciplinary collaboration – most of all they have shorter innovation cycles.

“Along with generating new ideas and future-proofing a business, hackathons help de-risk product development, improve employee engagement and retention, find excellent talent, enable customer-focused innovation and engagement, accelerate the speed of innovation and problem-solving, enhance collaboration between teams, bring about cost savings through R&D, and build community, brand and leadership.”

Anna Collard, SVP content strategy and evangelist at KnowBe4 Africa, concurs that innovation challenges and hackathons provide the grounds for real problem-solving and expand creative thinking skills.

A security awareness training firm, KnowBe4 Africa is part of the public-private sector collaboration that brought to life the Gov-X Innovation Challenge.

Collard explains: “Inspired by the X-Prize Foundation, we believe solutions can come from anyone and anywhere − they just need to be incentivised. The benefits are not just the potential list of ideas and submitted innovations, but the positive side-effects these programmes bring to the participants and all involved.”

Usually targeted at young people or students, hackathons allow participants to dig deep into real-life problems, understand what it means to follow an ideation process, which is a life skill they will benefit from later in their careers, as well as get them connected with a network of mentors and senior members of our industry, says Collard.

“In an ever-changing digital world, we have to collaborate more between industry, government and the youth to come up with solutions to the complex problems our societies are faced with.

“No entity on its own will be able to solve these, but by incentivising collaborative initiatives, we may have an opportunity to create long-lasting effects and establish much-needed communication channels between all parties involved. It also is a way to inspire the youth to choose a career path in fields they may not have thought about yet, such as cyber security; for example, in the Gov-X challenge.”

Anna Collard, SVP content strategy and evangelist at KnowBe4 AFRICA.
Anna Collard, SVP content strategy and evangelist at KnowBe4 AFRICA.

Value proposition

Evren Albaş, CEO of Defy Appliances, adds that hackathons provide immense value to all stakeholders, and create an exciting platform for students, businesses, innovators, thought-leaders and opinion leaders to engage.

“It also fosters a culture of innovation to solve difficult and complex problems for businesses and consumers.”

Appliance manufacturer Defy is gearing up to host its Hack The Normal online hackathon, which aims to explore how technology can be leveraged for sustainable living and economic development in Africa.

Stephen Osler, business development director at Nclose, says hackathons are a great way to expose general community challenges to a large volume of individuals or teams, with the intention to solve these in creative ways.

“South Africa has a number of challenges and the entire country needs to contribute to solving these problems. Hackathons also create a problem-solving culture, which is an imperative workplace skill.”

In terms of commercialising some of the solutions from the hackathons, for government, Ndabeni-Abrahams says there is no reason not to tell the State IT Agency to incubate some of the innovators and pilot some of their solutions.

“Ours is to say we are looking for government solutions. You will need people who must be able to say − how do we turn these ideas into practical solutions? The only way is to pilot them.

“Give young people an opportunity, bring them in-house, give them a desk and a stipend, and work them,” she concludes.

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