Government Hackathons:A Gift Or A Curse?

Today the Public Procurement and Asset Disposal Board (PPADB) announced that they had approved a request by the Office of the President to use Hackathons as a method of procurement for government online services. The decision seems to have polarized the developer community with some arguing that the move sets precedence for the exploitation of developers while others point out that it is a great way for local developers to get government contracts without going through the tedious tendering process.

To get an understanding of where both sides are coming from, it is important to understand how the government hackathons would work in a nutshell. Government would put out an invitation to developers for the development of an online service and give cash prizes to the winners. So with this model, the first issue that arises is, who will own the Intellectual Property(IP) of hackathon products?

In the past and even currently, corporates and government have made it clear in their hackathon terms and conditions that the IP for any product made during a hackathon belongs to them i.e. the organizing entity. This is obviously unfair and quite exploitative because, through that hackathon, the organizing entities get to keep the products of participants whilst the developers themselves only get a measly prize (or nothing) which is most of the time a fraction of the value of the actual product they developed.

In rebuttal, the developers who are in support of the move point out that in some cases, hackathons are used as a way to pick out developers who will eventually be engaged to implement the actual project. In short, they are a prelude to the actual project which is where the real money is. So for example, a corporate would organize a hackathon to develop a product they are looking to roll out in the future. The winner of the hackathon would then be brought in and given the capital for the actual development and implementation of the product. An example of this was in 2018 when Botswana Insurance Holdings Limited engaged the winner of their financial literacy mobile app and game hackathon to develop the actual product—awarding them a P3 million contract for this.

This, according to the hackathon initiative supporters, is advantageous to developers because they get to bypass the tendering process and go straight to being given the project on the virtue of winning the hackathon. Of course, this is good news only if one manages to win the hackathon. If they don't, not only would they have wasted hours on development for nothing but they would also not get to keep the fruits of those hours of labour. A double whammy.

Looking at the arguments from both sides, it is clear that although the use of hackathons for the procurement of online services can be of benefit to developers, this will require extensive tweaking of the terms and conditions of the hackathons. Firstly, the whole IP hogging condition has to be scrapped. It is exploitative to expect developers to spend hours working on a product only to take it away from them just because you organized the hackathon. What happens most of the time is that after a few months, developers would see a slightly changed version of their hackathon product being implemented by a more established company in a contract worth millions of pula.

Secondly, the hackathon organizing departments should give the winning developers first preference when it comes to the actual implementation of the product. This will ensure that apart from just the prize money, developers will also be on the running for a possible multi-million pula contract. As a developer on one of the communities pointed out, giving out only paltry cash prizes is unethical and is the equivalent of paying minimum wage for a highly lucrative skill set.

Whether government will follow the community's suggestions in their hackathons remains to be seen but looking at its track record of consultation, it would be wise for developers to not expect much. Instead of waiting and hoping for government to act right, local developers should keep using their impressive wide array of skills to develop products that potential customers, government or otherwise, would have no choice but to pay top pula for.

It would also be wise for developers to form associations that would push for legislation that would change the exploitative and unethical practices that are part of most private and public sector hackathons. In a country where the small guys' voices are seldom listened to, acting and speaking as a collective is always the best chance of success.

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