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Which Are More Useless: Hackathons or App Contests?

By Wayan Vota on December 8, 2014


Not a week goes by without an invitation to participate in a hackathon, or the announcement of yet another app contest. Yet, what is the actual impact of either? After a long debate on Facebook, I still see both are often used as ways to:

  • “Motivate community” – which means counting heads and claim that attendance equals either popularity or impact, or
  • “Find innovation” – which means free labor for R&D for ideas to steal or sell or to award a $5k prize and forget about it the next day.

And sadly, the latter is the usual result of both. Hackathons and app contests are announced with great fanfare, much effort is put into marketing both as amazing 1-off events, and then the day after… crickets. Not a sustained outcome to be found besides rightly justified satire.

The Good

Now that’s not to say that all hackathons and app contests are useless. As Siobhan Green says, hackathons can be good for team building and marketing, and great professional development for the participants. Yet she is still selective about which ones her company attends.

Kate Chapman and her friends participated in a Random Hacks of Kindness and built a prototype of what is now known as the OpenStreetMap Tasking Manager. The hackathon prototypes lead to a solid requirements document, funding to build the final product, and a forthcoming version two of the software.

The Bad

Besides the often-random episodic nature of both, the participants are self-selecting. Like Siobhan says, its basically people with a lot of free time to spend on extraneous activities, like students, and rarely the high-level professionals who can translate ideas into strong finished products. And forget attracting parents of young kids or anyone with a hyper-busy travel schedule to a weekend event.

Sadly, hackathons are notoriously unattractive to women in general, which results in skewed gender biases in the final product that go unseen, much less addressed, throughout the ideation and development processes.

The Ugly

While I just touched on it above, the real ugly of both events is intellectual property ownership. Any event where the event organizer exerts ownership of the end product is evil, regardless of outcome of the hackathon or app contest. Sadly, app contest rules are rife with terms and conditions that allow the event organizer to use, appropriate, and resell any ideas or software submitted in any way they see fit, without recourse for the developer.

Hackathons are usually slightly better, if only because there isn’t usually a formal software submission process at the end of the event. However, hackathons can create the perception that all anyone needs to do to solve a major humanitarian issue is to volunteer to crunch code for a weekend. That impression can be the most corrosive of all.

Models We Should Follow

As mentioned above, Random Acts of Kindness are often well run events with a tight focus and expectation of follow on by everyone involved. Crisismappers also does good hackathons, with Jerri Husch noting that much was learned and designed by good people and great tech emerged.

One of my favorite models is the State Department’s TechCamp. While not a hackathon itself, they bring together developers and civil society organizations to think through problems that technology could solve. Some of projects, ideas, and solutions that emerge from the two days of brainstorming feed into a hackathon to create viable software, like in the Philippines and Moldova.

Toni Eliasz points us to Guiding Ideas from Mind to Market, a new report from infoDev at the World Bank, that found well structured, multi-faceted approaches with follow-up support are the key elements of a good app contest.

And that is the model we should follow. Inclusive hackathons and app contest focused on pre-defined problems to develop Open Source solutions that organizations will be (not “might be” or “could be”) investing in afterwards for long-term impact.

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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4 Comments to “Which Are More Useless: Hackathons or App Contests?”

  1. Hackathon user says:

    I really dont agree with you on that one. For one i think there should be more of these.
    I have participated in a few, and it’s quite motivating to set the youth mindset in to thinking like an entrepreneur, great for socializing, meeting new people, and getting new ideas.
    The experience you learn, on how to present, pitch is also very useful, as some of these events actually have trainings around the subject.
    Additionally (if you’re lucky enough to win) you get seed money to start up your business.

  2. Mike Dawson says:

    I think there are two very different concepts being tarred with the same brush here. App contests/Startup contests, particularly those with decent prize funds, can be extremely useful for startups. Getting to your paying customers (not least if those customers are in the development sector) can take quite a while. Winning competitions can be faster. They also help persuading investors. $30K+ is typical pre-seed capital; so competitions with that amount of cash can be genuinely useful not just for getting youth motivated but helping real businesses off the ground. With the app contests it’s about something you’re working on anyway.

    With the Hackathons you are definitely going to attract a younger crowd with a bit more time; though you also get people who have a normal 9-5 job coming. 9-5 coders don’t generally have to travel much. Those often feed into people going into startup accelerators and app competitions for that matter.

    Both are generally well governed by market supply and demand: entrepreneurs, sponsors, investors, large customers in a given sector can all make their own decisions about participating that should see sub par events die off pretty quickly.

  3. Bob Watts says:

    Thanks very much for the positive comments about TechCamps. While earlier TechCamps have focused on building civil society capacity to create apps addressing a range of problems, the model has evolved to be focus on more specific ones, in line with your conclusion. If people are interested in finding out more, Eric Nelson, Director of the Office of eDiplomacy that runs TechCamps (@eDipAtState) and Kara Andrade, a frequent TechCamp trainer (@newmaya) will be leading a Core Conversation on TechCamps and related programs at SXSW 2015 (see http://panelpicker.sxsw.com/vote/37800.) The session will use #dorm2dakar.