Do Hackathons Fulfill Their Agenda of Problem Solving in India?
Ideas are exchanged between a group, to come up with a solution. 
Ideas are exchanged between a group, to come up with a solution. (Photo: iStock)

Do Hackathons Fulfill Their Agenda of Problem Solving in India?

There’s nothing new about hackathons. They have been commonplace in other countries for years, maybe even decades, but in India, the wheels have turned slowly. The digital India landscape is looking to change that, and at the helm of it are the country’s youth.

India's young techies are being entrusted with the task of ensuring that digital transition for government businesses takes place with ease. And for that to happen, diverse groups need to work together – and hence, the concept of hackathons came into being.

But how are these large-scale hackathon events undertaken, what goes into making them a success, and do they truly deliver on what’s expected of them?

Hackathons — How it All Starts

So, how exactly is a hackathon a problem-solving event? According to multiple research papers on the subject, a hackathon is defined as an event in which computer programmers work together for a short period of time on software projects.

Hackathons typically start with one or more presentations about the event, including the challenges at hand for the participants. The teams formed then suggest ideas for the challenge based on individual interests and skills.

To understand the groundwork behind such events, we spoke to various organisers in the country, who have seen things mature in this space.

The underlying concept behind doing a hackathon is finding creative solutions to problems.
Sachin Gupta, CEO and Co-Founder, HackerEarth
According to experts, the age of hackathon attendees varies, with 61 percent of them between 25 and 34. 

Brands like HackerEarth have added a different dimension to the event by taking it beyond the physical space. Virtual hackathons aren’t the norm yet, but HackerEarth sees them as the go-to platform for the future.

Students taking part in a hackathon to solve ministry problems. 
Students taking part in a hackathon to solve ministry problems. 
(Photo: The Quint)

On the other side, you have a technology service provider like Persistent Systems, which has been actively involved with events like the Smart India Hackathon.

We have partnered with Union ministries and state governments. We approached them with a request to provide problem statements. These problem statements are real-life issues faced by the respective department/ministry for which they would require software solutions.
Dr Abhay Jere, Organising Committee Secretary, Smart India Hackathon 2018

Abhay and Sachin are part of a clan that directs the efforts of students, who’re looking to solve digital (online services) problems, at the government level.

However, because of this focus on fixing the government's problems, youth can hardly focus on building skills in cutting edge technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and blockchain among others.

This does leave India lagging behind other developed superpowers such as the US, Europe and even China, as the country is busy ironing out basic grass root issues.

Virtual vs Physical Hackathon

Now that we understand hackathons, it’s time to talk about the different mediums in which the code-fest takes place these days. Physical hackathons are the standard form of the event. These take place at a fixed location, where students gather and immerse themselves in a day or two-day long event.

The Smart India Hackathon (SIH) follows this format, and according to Abhay, it has worked out the right strategy for issues to be resolved.

The judge panel at SIH includes ministry appointed members as well as IT industry experts. The event is designed in such a way that once the finale is over, the respective ministry or department takes promising projects forward, and work with them so that they can be implemented.
Dr Abhay Jere, Organising Committee Secretary, Smart India Hackathon 2018
(Photo: The Quint)

In comparison to that, virtual hackathons are clearly finding takers in the off-beat developer space. This is something that Amazon has deployed for its Alexa developer event in the country.

In a virtual hackathon, people can participate from their own location. You don’t have to assemble at a certain place. This model is effective in hack events like Alexa.
Sachin Gupta, CEO and Co-Founder, HackerEarth
Virtual hackathons take place without any geographical limitation. This encourages participation of students/developers beyond metros, going to remote parts of India.  

Globally, the format has been well received, with developers being able to sustain their efforts over a longer period. However, the million dollar question is, are developers in India as receptive to the digital platform?

Yes, very much. For software sessions, there are webinars to interact with everyone at the same time. More than 40 to 50 percent of our hackathons are virtual.  
Sachin Gupta, CEO and Co-Founder, HackerEarth

This has been the catalyst of mass participation of developers and Amazon, among other technology clients, is impressed with what it has seen so far. But is there a scope for both these formats to co-exist in the future?

Both can work effectively. Depends on how well they are managed. But they can co-exist for sure. Planning was done in three to four weeks a couple of years back. Not anymore. 
Siddhartha Chatterjee, CTO, Persistent Systems 

Do They Deliver?

At the end of the day, what really matters is if the hackathon is making any impact at the ground level. Abhay claims that many projects reviewed from last year’s SIH, approved by the ministries, are nearing the finishing line.

From Smart India Hackathon 2017 held last year, there were 57 projects that were taken forward by the respective ministry or department,  and 27 of those are close to completion.
Dr Abhay Jere, Organising Committee Secretary, Smart India Hackathon 2018

While virtual hackathons are slowly but surely finding traction, their use-case is mostly centred around a particular issue. Do these hackathons need to have an end-product all the time?

In India, it is believed that hosting such events requires some sort of a concrete output, and understandably so. Having said that, it won’t be very productive to host hackathons only to create a product or fix an issue.

Sometimes, merely finding a problem and reporting it to the higher authority or invigilator could go a long way in helping the community. It’s good to see that students and even developers are working towards this goal now.

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