Hackathons in Finland: free labor or open innovation?

Those following the Finnish technology scene have most likely observed that hackathons are this year’s megatrend. Everyone seems to be organizing a hackathon to get developers work with problems. You know, digitalisation is coming and everyone – public sector, private sector – need solutions that revolutionalize their operations using digitalisation … and hackathon is one of the trendy ways to bring digitalization gurus to the organization.

As an old-time hackathon participant, I have certain doubts about the whole concept, but as they are trendy, I think I should have something to say about them. I think we’re using hackathons in rather interesting ways – such as supplement procurement of software in public administration – which have some merits. However, there are also cases which seem more as exploitation of participants. I will first shortly address the academic literature around hackathons after which I move to my rant about hackathons.

What do we know about hackathons?

Sadly, the scholarly literature is still emerging around the whole phenomena (and, will most likely be fully developed only after hackathons are passé). But, let’s give it a try anyway and see what we know about hackathon based on the existing works.

Overall, hackathons can be technology-oriented (i.e., focus on particular platforms) or focused on problems; in particular solving societal problems in issue-based hackathons (Lodato & DiSalvo, 2016). These issue-based hackathons can serve multiple purposes; Johnson & Robinson (2014) see these type of hackathons mixed of a procurement process, civic engagement and innovation taking place. What these findings indicate is that people have motivations beyond just hacking things together; like improving the society or to make their views more concrete.

In general, hackathons have three phases; pre-hackathon, hackathon, and post-hackathon. Hackathons are intense collaborations require participants to set up the goals of the hack and the means of collaboration, including work processes. The hackathon itself is a face-to-face activity where participants work together intensively, but can also seek help from others in the team and engage in iterative development and critique. The challenge with post-hackathon activities is to continue with the same team without the collocated settings, as often the hacks need more love to be ready (Lodato & DiSalvo, 2016, Trainer et al., 2016).

Matti’s rant about some recent hackathons and challenges in Finland

Hackathons are a great way to bring bright people together to create something cool. While the process itself is difficult – as seen in above discussed literature – it may be rewarding for participants. Furthermore, at least my experience, hackathons are a great way to get uninterrupted thinking time for a problem in a creative manner. Having space, catering and time reserved in the calendar make it easy to focus on the problem.

In my view, the best hackathons have a somewhat open goal, allowing the developers to take different angles to the problem and demonstrate a variety of approaches, or to invent something new. Usually, the organizers in these cases seek out questions like “what is possible?” and in best cases contribute their skills and knowledge to help hackers. However, I’ve recently seen the term hackathon being used for events I don’t think live up to my ideals.

Hackathons and challenges should not be cheap software development

Some hackathons are organized with a super-specific goal already defined. In the Open Finland Challenge this year, there was a challenge organized by Aller Media, with the goal of

We want to add location data for discussions by offering the user an opportunity to find relevant information about ones’ surroundings. [shortly translated]

When reading this, I think the jury already had a rather clear vision of what they want to get as an outcome. Naturally, you can break the rules – and I did ask this in when the challenges were made public – it’s OK to hack whatever you want. But the jury will naturally read the challenge also. Just compare the challenge made by YLE in the same challenge competition

YLE has opened Elävä arkisto Data through an API. What interesting can you build using this information – maybe a new service to a special user group or something totally new? [shortly translated]

I think this challenge is open-ended, allowing participants to work in rather creative ways with the data. This aligns more within the ideas like open innovation, exposing the company to new ideas and approaches, and the creativity of hackathons. The former instead sounded to me that they might just want to consult a software company to produce a prototype of their idea and test it.

Hackathons and challenges should not be cheap consulting

The more recent case of this was from LähiTapiola Hack, where the goal was to develop “new digital solutions for inspiring young people to save and invest money. During the 5-day business hackathon teams will develop a new business or product concept for LähiTapiola (LocalTapiola), and finally pitch it to a jury consisting of LähiTapiola executives and business angels.”

I think this is a nicely open-ended problem to hack with, giving rather free hands to work with. There is opportunity for true creativity. However, in a closer look at the hackathon policies showed that there was something fishy about the IPR.

In hackathons I’ve attended, the IPR usually belongs to participants or its considered to become public domain. In this hackathon, instead, the conceptual innovations (whatever those are) are explicitly stated to belong to hackathon organizers if they emerge from data and materials by LähiTapiola. This means that these guys get free business consulting and ideas by buying food, space and 5,000 € reward for the winning team. If you want my ideas, you can just contact my consulting firm and we’ll discuss my pricing in detail. Or as it seems, they are actually incubating some business opportunities and startups for them – weirdly called a hackathon.

How to move forward?

I think the first step is to ensure we don’t call all things hackathons or challenges just to look trendy. If you aim to incubate startups or run public procurement, are you really doing a hackathon or something else which may have similar characteristics of a hackathon – collocated fast-paced and solution centric work, aiming to produce some concrete outcome by the final day. I would even avoid the name hackathon for everything that’s not what I would call traditional hackathon, a day or two of hard work in open context – just to make sure you don’t market the event in a wrong manner and get weirdos like me attending.

Second, if you’re sure you’re organizing a traditional hackathon, check that your hackathon task is semi-open to participation. Naturally, seasoned hackathon participants know how to read the tasks in an open manner and produce something cool. But it might be more inviting even for them if they can see that the organizer is truly seeking something novel and cool. Remember that hackathons, as I see them, should be much about open collaboration, open innovation and facilitating great minds to come together.

Finally, have some answer to the question ‘what next?’ If there are ideas the hackathon participants want to move further, how can your organization support those moving forward? I do have good experiences of these, including seed investment from organisations to develop the quick proof of concept into a true product and even launching those. And if you have plans like this, remember to tell about those beforehand and check you continue to support teams throughout the further process as well.

Acknowledgement

I was motivated to write this post thanks to the poor case from LähiTapiola hack and discussions with my nerd friends in the #fixme-irc channel. All views presented in this text are naturally my own and may not reflect the #fixme-community, the Rajapinta-community, my employer, my supporters, nor the future self.

Cross-posted to my personal blog, Science & Industry.

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