In January last year, Mark Zuckerberg gathered a couple of hundred Facebook engineers for a much vaunted fiftieth hackathon. As helium balloons spelling HACK 50 danced in the air at the Menlo Park headquarters, they slumped over their laptops for a backbreaking 24 hours as they tried to put dazzling ideas into a workable code. Hackathons are the lifeblood of technology companies.
Twitter was cranked out at a “hack day”. Facebook dreamed up Chat and Post and Safety Check at hackathons. But these marathons for programmers are no longer the preserve of technology companies or of Silicon Valley.
Anheuser-Busch InBev knew that neatly stacked Budweiser bottles and discounts aren’t enough to bait lager lovers. Factors driving incremental volume are far more complex. Early this month in Bengaluru, the world’s largest brewer hosted a hackathon on retail optimisation where it asked coders to create solutions to gauge return on investment and to capture changes in price promotional activities.
The beer maker, as it turns out, is not the only non-technology company using geeks to decode consumer behaviour and hunt for retail solutions. Take Daimler India. The hackathon by the automaker in Bengaluru last October resulted in three innovative ideas: vehicle detection and traffic mapping, which included a prototype to help ambulances ease their way through traffic; a Skype-like, interactive, Android application for cars without internet for peer-to-peer video communication; and an app to tackle driver distraction.
“The perception about hackathons has undergone a sea change in India,” says Sachin Gupta, cofounder of HackerEarth, a Bengalurubased online platform for programmers, which conducted 18 hackathons in 2015. The number shot up to 30 in 2016. India, says Gupta, is slowly transforming into a hub of innovation. If, in the past decade, the country was largely seen as a back office for corporate giants from the West, now it is evolving into a product nation. And businesses need technology more than ever before to survive these changing times.
One reason why hackathons are gaining acceptance among non-IT firms is the blurring line between technology and non-technology companies. From operations to human resources, from finance to sales, every division is either enabled by technology or fundamentally disrupted by it. “Every function of a business is being transformed by technology,” says Gupta.
Over the next decade, he says, a lot of companies will develop strong technological capabilities inhouse because tech is going to drive their business. This will require them not only to build strong technical teams but to also cultivate close relationships with the programmer community to foster innovation.
This is what Exotel, a cloud telephony company that helps businesses communicate with customers efficiently over calls and texts, did through its hackathon on machine learning.
For a company that claims to power over 3 million customer conversations every day and has processed 1.2 billion calls over the last five years, the challenge was to offer actionable analytics based on customer conversations. It was planning to build a system that could flag the sentiment of conversations as happy, sad, angry and neutral.
“We wanted to see how some of the smartest engineering minds would approach this problem,” says Shivakumar Ganesan, cofounder of Exotel.
About 890 teams were given sample audio files and asked to use speech-recognition algorithms and machine learning to write code that would use the voice as an input and recognise the emotion behind it. The code would then be run across thousands of voice samples to choose the best model. “The winning hack was the one that came closest to detecting the sentiment of conversations,” says Ganesan.
Retail giant Walmart too is trying to figure out the dynamics of humanmachine interaction. In August 2016, Walmart Labs India, the tech arm of Walmart, conducted a hackathon in Bengaluru to crowdsource ideas in retail and understand customer analytics using machine learning.
In a brief presented to coders, it pointed out the challenge: while customer transactions are both online and at physical stores, how can one get a single view of customer behaviour and transaction patterns? How can one leverage the latest techniques in machine learning and deep learning to provide insights to the marketing team? The solutions, the brief concluded, should be actionable, cross-channel, repeatable, scalable and reusable in other domains for maximum impact.
Sreekumar Bahuleyan, senior director, human resources, Walmart Labs India, says: “Today, technology drives an incredible shift in customers’ expectations and we have to build capabilities to meet them.
One way to build those capabilities is through hackathons. They also create opportunities to reach out to developers across various communities. A recent trend that is emerging is that non-tech industries are exploring hackathons as a channel to crowdsource talent and ideas. Thought-provoking ideas get transformed into applications/products in a few days to a few weeks.”
Tech evangelists, however, are not surprised to see a metamorphosis in the nature of hackathons as diverse companies experiment with the idea. “Innovation is the oxygen for any company. A hackathon supplies that oxygen,” says Shripati Acharya, managing partner at Prime Venture Partners, an earlystage investment fund in Bengaluru.
Acharya points out three quick benefits: innovative ideas, low-cost solutions and the stoking of creative mindset. While ideas for new products can take months, hackathons fast-track the process. The cost advantage too is huge. During internal hackathons, says Acharya, employees step out of their normal roles to perform creative tasks.
Even state governments are wracking the brains of engineers to find solutions to everyday problems. Take, for instance, Code for Karnataka. The IT department of the state government conducted a hackathon in December 2015 to explore mobile technology for better governance.
One of the ideas emerging out of hackathon was mFIR, a mobile app that registers complaints at the site of an accident. The app sends notifications to the police by sharing the location so that they can reach the spot quickly. People present on the spot can also add images related to the accident.
Even local administrations are persuaded to use coders to solve real-life challenges. Urban Hack was the first ever smart city hackathon in India by the Bangalore City Police and the Metropolitan Transport Corporation in October 2015. The challenge for the police and the local administration was manifold: growing traffic, declining public safety, increasing commuting time resulting in loss of productivity and rising crimes. The hack proved to be a blessing.
SatarkApp, one of the solutions by coders, addressed the issue of personal safety and reporting of crime. Tag Car, a road traffic management system based on IOT (internet of things), used unique RFID (radio frequency tags identification) to track vehicles in real time and helped in spotting traffic violations, rerouting traffic, tracking lost cars and suggesting green corridors for emergency vehicles.
Zuckerberg is not alone. His grey tees and helium balloons may be missing, but many are hacking their way to a better future.