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Govt entities turn to hackathons to boost service delivery

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As more public sector entities are leaning towards hackathons in resolving service delivery challenges, analysts are hopeful this will lead to urgent “liberation of data” to encourage developers to build more localised and contextualised solutions.

ICT leaders who spoke to ITWeb say data is a crucial production factor for developers and a necessary asset to compete in the digital ecosystem.

They say in the past two months, they have seen significant shifts in public sector focus, especially in the peri-urban-based municipalities that are making strides in embracing hackathons.

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.

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, many government entities are now leaning towards these hackathons to resolve service delivery matters.

Recently, the South African Local Government Association (SALGA) joined forces with Empire Partner Foundation, an NGO, to find municipal digital solutions.

Earlier this year, at the height of the lockdown, communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams announced her plans to put hackathons at the core of creating a “4IR army” in SA.

This shift in the public sector has been welcomed, as industry watchers say technology is now acknowledged as a critical catalyst in solving service delivery matters, but they are urging government entities to make information more accessible.

No secrets

“Liberation of data is also crucial – developers must have data to build more localised and contextualised solutions. Public sector entities must strive to establish open data strategies of their own and this will assist in acquiring best desired results from hackathons,” says Tiyani Nghonyama, COO at Geekulcha.

“We have seen significant shifts in the past 12 months, especially in the peri-urban-based municipalities in making strides towards increasing platforms that bring about new ideas, especially from the young people.

“Geekulcha has had an opportunity to partner with the German Development Cooperation, Amathole District Municipality with ASPIRE, Steve Tshwete Local Municipality and the South African Local Government Association in hosting local government hackathons in the past couple of months, and the events involved workshopping scenarios and key issues in the municipalities.”

For Empire Partner Foundation (EPF), which encourages young people to pursue digital entrepreneurship by hosting monthly hackathons, the change of heart in the public sector helps create a culture of innovation in SA.

“The thumbs up given to hackathons by entities such as SALGA definitely does indicate a change of heart in the public sector and how they now see technology as a critical catalyst in solving service delivery issues,” says Jasmine Mokwena, head of marketing at EPF.

Culture of creating

“These hackathons do create a culture of innovation in public sector entities because it exposes them to an incredibly tech-focused environment with tech-industry professionals that come together to create innovative solutions that solve problems,” Mokwena notes.

EPF says more engagements between government entities and local techies may be helpful in the long run, as developers do not always understand how the government works while developing their solutions in a hackathon setting. “There needs to be more alignment.”

To date, EPF has worked with 281 young developers, hosted seven hackathons and has 12 lined up for the coming months.

The organisation has so far incubated eight winning teams, who designed solutions for water, SASSA grant payments, healthcare and education.

Additionally, Mokwena says, it is extremely critical for SA to prioritise digital skills training as this will help in service delivery as well as help grow the economy.

She explains: “The country needs to stay up to date with leading countries in tech so that our economy does not suffer from being left out or left behind just because we don’t have relevant or resourceful skills.

“It is very important for the country to create new career models to avoid having graduates with skillsets within or related to digital technology without jobs. EPF addresses these challenges by partnering with innovative and advanced companies in the tech industry that offer hackathon participants opportunities such as internships, bursaries and permanent jobs.”

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