Hackathons: Corporate Social Investment or antithetical to innovation and empowerment?

Going digital: Hackathons do not always help software developers
Going digital: Hackathons do not always help software developers

Since April 2018, when His Excellency Dr Mokgweetsi Masisi took office and declared that Botswana has to digitally transform to survive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), we have seen many initiatives aimed at developing young Batswana to grow the technology industry.

One of the more popular forms of initiative has been the Hackathon. This article therefore examines whether this approach as chosen by Government, parastatals and large corporates, does in fact do what it intends to do or is counterproductive to the efforts and initiatives as espoused and intended by President Masisi in empowering and growing young Batswana in technology.

As technology specialists and entrepreneurs, we entered 2021 with quiet hope and confidence. This was in large part a result of the hope that, as COVID-19 permanently altered business models and how institutions worked in 2020, a new dawn in our industry would emerge this year as companies and government are forced to be innovative in how they work and survive. This hope was quickly dashed in the first productive week of the year as Botswana Innovation Hub (BIH), the state-owned enterprise tasked with fostering innovation in Botswana, and a large corporate financial institution, announced Hackathons to be hosted in quick succession early in the year. Why did these announcements cause widespread condemnation in the industry though their hosts probably assumed they would be welcomed as excellent developmental and empowerment efforts in line with the government transformation strategy?

The answer lies in the nature of hackathons and how they have been executed previously in Botswana. According to Wikipedia, a hackathon (also known as hack day, hackfest, datathon or codefest) is an event organised in which computer programmers and software developers collaborate intensely on a challenge that will result in software projects. In its most common application, you get an institution or community presenting a challenge to teams of programmers who then, within the limited stipulated time, attempt to build an application that would best deal with whatever problem has been presented. These initiatives started around the late 1990s in a bid to unearth the best talent in specific applications and problem solving. Ordinarily, the hackathons would be hosted by coding communities and there would be judges and presentations with the winning teams receiving prizes. Therefore, at a purely concept level the hackathon provides a good opportunity for empowerment for young coders and programmers to show their skills.

In Botswana, we have seen the evolution and popularity of the hackathon gain momentum in the past few years. Since 2018, we’ve had at least eight hackathons, with most of them hosted by the BIH on behalf of different institutions ranging from BIHL, Alpha Direct and Kalahari Conservation Society. The prize monies for these hackathons have ranged from P5,000 to P100,000. The challenges posed to the teams include building an application to read and store Omang cards, building a game for teaching financial literacy, building an application that would transform public transport and building an application for managing human wildlife conflict, among others.

So, how then can one say the local technology industry has reacted with dismay at the latest hackathons announced? Sadly, whilst hackathons originally were used to identify talent and were used by developer communities, they were discovered by corporations and institutions and used in less than ethical manners. Corporations started inserting terms and conditions that were suspicious in their competition rules. Similar to the recently announced hackathons, corporations inserted a condition that all projects developed in the hackathons would belong to them as Intellectual Property (IP). This meant that, under the guise of empowerment and a nominal prize, a company would get access to the best and brightest minds and use the event as a research and development program by mining ideas then subsequently going and developing them commercially and making millions from the products developed. This is clearly taking advantage of the naiveté (and sometimes desperation) of the young developers enticed by a five-figure prize money. The stealing of IP is also antithetical to encouraging innovation. How do you encourage innovation when you keep participants’ IP?

Outside of being unethical, it also undercuts the very empowerment these companies are claiming to champion. Whilst my suspicion is that the corporates and state-owned enterprises view the hackathon as Corporate Social Responsibility/Investment (CSR/CSI), they overlook how the effort undercuts the industry. By owning the IP from the event, they have effectively run a procurement process for an application and paid minimal monies. If they had run a proper process and procured that service on the market they would have probably paid millions for the application.

This therefore means, young Batswana companies who could have provided the service and hence been truly empowered, are undercut by the competition, as the corporate gives out the equivalent of “blankets” in their CSI. This is an archaic way of viewing CSI. Where the corporate is more concerned about the cosmetics of pretending to care about development, by hosting an event, getting maximum media coverage, handing over a token prize and walking away the next day with their IP with no care of how their competition affects the overall industry. Progressive corporate responsibility would rather tweak the hackathon for the teams to get a challenge, create a proof of concept, give a nominal prize but the bigger prize be for the corporate to enlist the winning team to develop and roll out the solution to them and actually deploy it and use it, at market going rates. This would truly reward the participants as they would get a proper opportunity to work in a real environment which would be sustainable and used as a reference going forward. This would also fight unemployment as the corporate would give meaningful work. An excellent example of this was the hackathon hosted by the Botswana Insurance Holdings Limited (BIHL) group in 2018 where the challenge was to create a financial literacy mobile application and game. The winning company, PCG, was subsequently awarded P3 million as capital to develop the application and roll it out to market. True and real empowerment.

This is especially important in this era we are in because as local companies trying to compete for work in this industry, in normal procurement we are crowded out by South African companies with more experience than ourselves as their industry is 15 to 20 years ahead of ours. Therefore, our only hope to do meaningful work is if corporates and government take a deliberate approach to use Botswana Innovation Hub (BIH) as a platform where local companies can compete on proof of concepts which can then be built out and rolled out. Due to a lot of companies and government wanting to transform, we will see many of them place tenders in the papers wanting systems worth millions and asking for company experience that the local fledgling industry cannot possibly have. These tenders will fly by the local companies if there isn’t a deliberate leadership to procure in a manner that is empowering to the industry and Batswana. Coupled with the evil of the hackathons, this will keep the local technology industry in the doldrums and ensure we are not able to combat unemployment and discover the talent and innovation that is currently dormant in Botswana.

In Botswana specifically, another sad reality is that most efforts to truly develop the coding and programming community have fallen on developer communities like PyDataBW and iCodeHub. These communities host skills development workshops for free as a way of giving back to the community. A lot of their efforts have been hampered by lack of funding with corporates refusing to sponsor the monthly meetups meant to upskill the local talent pool. Actual meaningful community work struggles to attract P5,000 sponsorships but corporates rather choose to create hackathon events which not only have proven to be unethical and undercutting of the industry but also aren’t meaningful in growing the sector. Meaningful CSI would involve supporting these communities over longer periods to develop their skills, rather than one day events that strip them of their innovations and IP.

In conclusion, I pray that government via BIH, corporates and other entities have a different look at this “hackathon phenomenon” and see it for what it is and how it hampers the industry rather than empowering it. I also challenge local corporates to use these hackathons to procure solutions that will be deployed at market rates and hence truly empower the companies that step forward (after all this is not new to them as this is how they use hackathons in the respective countries they come from). They would also do well to get closer to the communities they are trying to develop and get feedback on how to assist rather than employing cosmetic media friendly buzzwordy events which do not truly feed into the aspirations of what Botswana as a country is trying to achieve.

*Mphoeng is a partner in a 100% Botswana citizen-owned Data Analytics and Digital Transformation company called Spectrum Analytics. Spectrum Analytics specialises in consulting, business process improvement, enterprise solutions and training in relation to data management and analytics

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