Last week I was invited to speak at the XI Metropolis World Congress 2014 in Hyderabad on Break Dengue. An initiative we began just over a year ago to fight one of the most economically devastating diseases around the globe, which affects populations in over 100 countries, dengue fever. We hope that Break Dengue will soon roll out a dengue prevention project in Hyderabad using mobile technology to fight the disease in Hyderabad. So, this wasn’t my first time to be in Hyderabad, but this time round I had been invited to serve as a judge and a mentor for a hackathon by Alfonso Govela.
A co-founder of Digital Civics, a UN-Habitat initiative for a new citizenship in our XXI Century, which includes platforms of knowledge, ecosystems of interaction, and interfaces for governance. Alfonso wears many hats; he’s an architect, an urban planner and an educator. This was my first opportunity involved in such an event and although I had heard about the concept before, I was thrilled to see it up close in action.
The concept of a hackathon is simple. You get a group of technologists and creatives together for usually about 24 – 48 hours, make them form groups, and each group needs to find a solution to a specific problem. The problem is, pre-defined by an organization, a community of people or a group of subject matter experts with extensive experience in the topic. The hackathon was initially a software dominated concept with programmers writing code to win a specific challenge, but it can also be applied to business, marketing or any other field such as governance or social impact. Although a ‘hackathon’ is a relatively new concept once owned by coders, the concept is taking off in all fields.
The United States Air Force Research Laboratory recently implemented a hackathon to solve problems that its teams regularly see. The World Bank has also used the concept through regional engagement to tackle issues with water, city resilience and domestic violence. Wired recently recapped results from a series of hackathons organized over 18 months to save lives.
In the case of the Metropolis Hackathon, the goal was to come up with the idea that would help the city, through the innovative use of technology. The solution could be possibly by building an app, a technology process or local project. The event was run by my inviter to the panel, Alfonso Govela. Involved in Cities and ICT since his early days at MIT, Alfonso has s a great deal of experience with such projects.
It was impressive to see the level of energy, creativity and detail some of the contestants brought to this event. And some of the ideas were truly ground breaking. Once finalized, the short listed candidates were quizzed by the judges, which included some city officials, experienced programmers, entrepreneurs and myself. Participating in my first hackathon opened my eyes to the potential business applications the process could have. Imagine solving those ordinary as well as extreme problems that businesses face every day.
One has to admire the ‘hackathon’ mindset, which is about trying to find ‘out of the box’ solutions to common problems in a short space of time and under intense scrutiny. Having a diverse group of participants collaborate by providing very different points of view and insights to the creative process designed to find solutions is an additional value add towards innovating on some of these challenges.
(Mistake on the tag of the video pending to solve)
Having a number of participants stuck in a room together for an extended period unlocks a certain energy, which is then transformed into a catalyst for solving real world problems. The Hackathon at the Hyderabad Metropolis Conference proved to be a creative environment that delivered engagement and respect from the experts in the software industry. I soon realized, that hosting a hackathon could be a great opportunity for any business interested in networking and meeting new problem solvers, which might prove to be valuable assets down the road. Like most hackathons outside of New York and San Francisco (where they can be found every weekend) the event was highly covered by the press, providing plenty of quality media exposure.
A hackathon is the kind of event that can be actually very productive. They even have the potential to be profitable for a company that organizes one, as long as they create the right types of follow-up mechanisms for projects to continue being worked on by the teams. Some of these projects can move on to operate as independent startups or programs while others are backed by specific institutions.
In addition to hosting, the city of Hyderabad had made a strong commitment that this was not just going to be a theoretical exercise, but something they would seriously consider implementing. The Municipal Commissioner, Somesh Kumar told the short listed candidates to stay in touch even if they didn’t win. He wanted to hear their ideas in more detail, to evaluate whether or not they could be applied in one way or the other. The winning entries were already being discussed as possible projects that the city would fund and support. So the process is about generating ideas and putting them into practice quickly thereafter. Out of 390 registered teams and 200 preliminary ideas, 20 projects made it to a short list, and the selected winning teams were 6:
- 245, House Numbering: Digital Numbering Systems for every house in Hyderabad.
- 269, CyberCitizens: Intelligent Grievance & Incident Response System.
- 277, ConceptWaves: A Central Pedophile Registry.
- 293, Parking Management: Inventory of parking spaces for personalized users.
- 335, Tech for Senior Citizen: Voice mechanism for basic needs of senior population.
- 419, Doc in a Box: Basic diagnosis equipment for health care of chronic diseases.
More on the event and the winners here.
The adaptation of the hackathon can be used in business to work out issues both big and small. Various companies and organizations are also seeing the benefits in unlocking internal talent and breaking down silos of knowledge within the organizations themselves.
Our own Hyperthinking session follow a similar structure, as we identify a challenge and get a group together to look for innovative ways of solving the problems. But a hackathon has a broader appeal as it deliberately targets a broad community of people with different talents and seeks completely new insights into solving existing challenges.
At ZN, we applaud the effort the teams given in Hyderabad and the creative and collaborative approach to the problem-solving of the days event.
How are you driving creative problem-solving with your team? Perhaps it is time to give it hack!