Germany’s biggest hackathon to date, WirVsVirus, began with a major technical problem.
“We invited 43,000 people to Slack, and the way we planned on doing it didn’t work out,” says Anna Hupperth, head of communications for Tech4Germany — one of the organisers of the online event dedicated to hacking solutions for Covid-19.
“Basically there were 20,000 people standing in front of our ‘door’ and we couldn’t let them in.”
While not ideal, it was a sign of just how in-demand the event was in the tech community — a little example of the explosive popularity of hackathons in recent weeks as the world scrambles to find solutions to issues around coronavirus.
Hackathons were made popular decades ago by the software community as communal, all-night sessions working insanely hard on specific problems. Today, with much of the world on lockdown, the sessions are online but the spirit remains.
Last week saw The Global Hack, where 15,000 coders, engineers and designers came together to find ways to help in the pandemic. Famous supporters included LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman and Sam Altman, former president of Y-Combinator.
Other recent hackathons include one organised by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US, with its “Beat the Pandemic” series of virtual hackathons, and one by WHO Africa. Hack from Home is another global hackathon initiated by Dataswift, partnering universities and NHSX.
The European Commission is also planning its own pan-European hackathon, #EUvsVirus, after witnessing the success and participation in hackathons across its member states, including Estonia, Finland, Poland, Italy and Belgium.
Wir vs. Virus
Inspired by a similar event in Estonia, WirVsVirus came together in a matter of days. Tech4Germany — the technology task force for the German federal government — brought the idea to the attention of the federal chancellery. It soon spiralled into an initiative backed by the entirety of the federal government, with seven other participating organisations.
The 48-hour hackathon was, in the end, considered a big success, with the initial Slack problems just a minor hiccup. Beyond producing ideas, it offered a positive environment for participants: the federal press office told Hupperth that they’ve never monitored a government event that was so friendly and supportive and had so little hate speech.
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The event produced over 1,500 potential solutions to a range of coronavirus-related issues. Around 600 jury members in politics, science, business, tech and health evaluated the results, and 20 projects — from symptom management systems to logistics platforms — were picked as winners.
Among the 20 winning projects were a number of acute medical solutions, including Digital Waiting Room — a central registration platform for suspected virus cases which allows for the risk-based allocation of test appointments — and Coronav, which better directs coronavirus-related phone calls so as to not overwhelm hotlines.
There were also solutions designed to build a new kind of win-win local economy. Jobs Around You is a platform that allows out-of-work people to help in nearby areas where their services are urgently needed. Similarly, Colivery allows low-risk people to register as volunteers to help fully quarantined, high-risk individuals with groceries and essential shopping.
Although not selected as a winner, the WorkNow: Human Impact Platform was created as a business-facing workforce liquidity management platform. The team at dynamics — a startup engagement unit of the Porsche-owned consultancy MHP — was inspired to create the solution after hearing of the recent partnership between McDonald's Germany and Aldi grocery stores, where McDonald's employees facing layoffs can instead temporarily work at Aldi locations in desperate need of additional help.
“This imbalance in the workforce is happening all over the world,” said Karina Schultz-Blohm, head of communications at dynamics. “There will be huge macroeconomic consequences because of it, so we came up with a way for companies to quickly shift their human resources to where they’ll have the biggest impact on the local and global economy.”
Are hackathons effective?
Some hackathon cynics argue that the high-intensity coding events are more fun than useful. Anjali Sastry, a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management, argues that real innovation comes from sustained efforts — not blips of energy in a vacuum.
Stories shared by engineers via Reddit show a mixed bag of sentiments toward hackathon culture. For some, who have sworn off hackathons altogether, the rush to code and produce with unhealthy, unsustainable intensity only leads to burnout. Others say that hackathons favour attractive user interfaces and presentation over functionality.
But despite the critics, a range of big companies, governments, states and the European Union are all pushing ahead with hackathons, which are seemingly more popular than ever in these challenging times.
And while the long-term impact remains to be seen, in the short term, it’s a remarkable outpouring of creativity and focus from the tech community.
Florian Rathgeber, a site reliability engineer at Google who volunteered his personal time to “mentor” participants in WirVsVirus, spent time monitoring active Slack channels, providing support on technical infrastructure and advising participants on how to architect their solutions.
By the end, he was impressed by the results and energy. All participants and organisers who spoke with Sifted echoed the same sentiment.
“I have been a part of more than 150 hackathons over the last nine years and know first hand what an immensely powerful force they are,” Rathgeber said. “#WirVsVirus in particular was a huge source of inspiration, hope and optimism in such difficult times.
“It was great to see that more than 48,000 people can come together and collaborate, and the result is not utter chaos.”