Hackathons for Development

A few days ago, I was contacted by Catherine Cheney from Devex who wanted to speak with me about hackathons and how they might be used in international development. Since I’m always happy to geek out about how technology can make lives better, we talked for a while on the topic. Since you’re probably happy to geek out, too, here are some highlights from her article, including how our work from SDI fits into that context. You can read the full article here.

Broadly, hackathons in development are about multi-sectoral collaboration. Teams from the public sector, private sector, academia and NGOs can come together and work on development projects. Sometimes this is about applying the tools of private sector innovation and entrepreneurship to public sector problems, sometimes about exposing private sector employees to development problems. As Hack For Good founder James Rooney said in the article “I started Hack for Good as a way to create a community and provide a clear path for employees who were looking for ways to use their skills for social good.”

Finding the right objectives is key, for Karen Bergin from Microsoft “The whole point of the hackathon is to encourage our employees to learn by doing,” for Jay Corless from the UN Foundation, much of the potential comes when their “Solution Makers” are “experiencing different obstacles that external resources could eventually help them overcome”. In general, there is a need to ensure that there is a focus on the development needs being addressed. Ideally, experts or community members should be engaged in the process of developing projects, as expressed by Adam White, founder of Digital Matutus in Kenya “The best events I’ve been to involve groups of people who know the context really well.”

My thoughts on hackathons ran similarly, identifying three uses for hackathons in development, awareness raising, skill building and development of solutions. Awareness raising solutions need to have a high public profile, getting attention for the issues being addressed. Skill building hackathons need top level experts with the time to work with innovators on developing and practicing their business and technical skills. Solution development hackathons need to focus on followup, as I noted: “One of the big problems hackathons always run into is it’s just 48, 72 hours and then it’s done,” he said. “You end up with a lot of great ideas that are dead ends, that aren’t fully developed, that die off.” Jay Coreless had a similar comment “Development professionals are passionate about solving problems and seeing impact. They get very frustrated and lose faith in things that seem to serve only for publicity.” He recommends ensuring that the winning teams work closely with development professionals. SDI takes a different, but also effective tack.

We work to ensure that the solutions developed during our projects are embedded in the communities they will serve, and providing the teams behind them with the resources they need to succeed, scale and thrive. The goal has to be to not just have teams develop a good idea during an event, but to provide them the skills to turn that into a solid project, and turn that into a sustainable business. This issue, stated by several experts several times in the Devex article, is a key in why SDI structures our work the way we do.

What are your thoughts about Hackathons in development? Are they a valuable tool? Should they be expanded? Are they overused? Are there good alternatives? Let us know.