Do cities need one more hackathon?
These days apps4Europe (http://www.appsforeurope.eu) is ending. In the last 3 years apps4Europe tried to redefine the dynamic of hackathons making them more effective resulting in more and better apps putting into practice concepts such as the Business Lounge. This is the last of a series of European projects (Open Cities, Commons 4 Europe, CitySDK, apps4Europe, …) aimed at transforming cities into ecosystems where app services were provided not by the cities themselves but by developers and startups. It is therefore time for a reflection.
Over the past years European cities promoted lots of hackathons with the hope of fostering the development of city & civic apps. Hackathons have become a staple in cities’ policies with the ambition of promoting the development of a tech ecosystem.
However, very few startups graduated from this process and for the ones who did you can argue to what extend hackathons have been a decisive factor. Moreover, if we look at the apps that we have installed in our smartphones and we normally use, only very rarely we can find one resulting from this process. None is in the list of top 100 either.
Therefore, confronting results with the ambition it is hard to argue that we got far away with this strategy and it becomes pretty obvious that we have to rethink the whole process, because … it has not been working and it is not working. And in this case, it has not been that we didn’t try, we did and we did a lot.
In spite of this evidence however, cities continue investing in hackathons. It seems quite reasonable to ask us why is this happening and to what extent this is the best possible move.
If we want to understand any social process, we have first to understand the incentives and motivations that drive it. Meaning the incentives and motivations that drive the groups involved. In hackathons we have two main groups: (i) the community of developers and (ii) the organizers & sponsors.
Developers continue to attend and engage in hackathons, maybe in smaller numbers, but they are there. There is an obvious gain for them in terms of visibility, and some money too. Visibility is very important for a developer’s life because is the key to new opportunities, to a better job, to land in a more promising startup, in general visibility means progress. Developers don’t have a lot of ways to show off and even fewer to signal their expertise, there is always too much to learn and too much work around, also ideas are normally presented by founders or business development guys. Hackathons offer a unique opportunity for visibility, networking and cohesion.
Founders and business developers have even a more clear incentive. One huge problem for apps is discovery. With about 1.7M apps around, being in a page greater than 3 equals dead. You do whatever you can to be in the first or second page, few people looks at the third and almost nobody to the fourth.
What about cities? and hackathon organizers? Well, they get the front page. Who is not happy with the front page? They also get this feeling of moving things forward, maybe modestly but forward. Doing everything they can.
Now it is a bit clearer why we still have lots of hackathons despite the fact that they are not really conductive to neither more apps nor the growth of a successful ecosystem of developers. Motivations and incentives are there. They don’t align very well with the objective of having successful apps, but they are there. Therefore it will continue running until these motivations are no longer present. This is happening slowly, because at a point, and particularly in small communities, there is no more networking to be done, the press is tired of kackathons, they don’t get into the news anymore and people begin to ask where are the apps. This is however a long process.
What we just described is a case of a process of social misalignment that without external validation will continue going on because it addresses to some extend the motivations of the groups involved even if everybody is aware that its goals cannot be completely achieved. The invisible hand is there !
Can we do it better?
If we want to do it better we need a process that both maintains or surpases existing incentives while aligning with the desired results.
If the promised results were there, if apps resulting from hackathons became great successes, the whole process will work. The main culprit that it is not working is not the quality of developers, the amount of money on the table, the challenge presented to developers, … Results are not there because the business model is not working . Only very few app developers make a decent living, only few apps get the way to our pockets.
The actual business model assumes that value has to be capture solely with the app, either directly or indirectly through subscriptions, virtual goods, ads, you name it … And, as we know well this is not working for the great majority of developers. Thus, very few apps have the opportunity to grow fast enough that they can attract capital to be visible and graduate.
It will be very difficult that we can change this dynamic because it is generated by the network structure, the same network structure that created the app market in the first place. This is particularly true in the case of civic apps, which are normally more local.
Therefore we need to create opportunities of value capture for developers and they cannot and will not come – at least for a while – from the market. Without opportunities for civic startups and developers no market can flourish.
Opportunities will drive developers and create a community around them, a community that can flourish and enter in new markets. However, with apps at $1.99, limited downloads, limited visibility in app stores and our limited attention span, it is really difficult for startups and app developers to capture value and for VC to believe that they have to invest in this market.
Therefore these opportunities are not going to come solely from the market, particularly in areas where venture capital, access to visibility and best talent cannot be taken for granted. Also it will be rare that they are equally distributed between high-growth private companies and civic-oriented ventures.
We have to go beyond this belief that hackathons are magical bands powerful enough to transform the provision of services and we have to get serious into changing procurement processes, changing the provision of technology in cities and injecting new breed into city tech corps while aligning with the initiatives of companies and the civil society.
A few ideas: Instead of investing into disconnected hackathons, building on more permanent and connected structures such as local and international co-working spaces and accelerators. Investing in open source software, such as Ckan for Open Data platforms and using it as a lever to promote the growth of the ecosystem because it will be maintained and extended by local communities helping that way in the creation of an industry. Promoting the development of independent organizations that can put transparency to work in the hands of journalists and provide credible assessments to citizens (Cities can not provide the data and the assessment – this is not credible sorry).
Developing ecosystems and changing the provisions of services is more than hackathons.
Do we need another hackathon? Maybe this is the wrong question after all, what we urgently need is a comprehensive strategy that addresses the provision of public services and the role of local authorities in this digital world of the XXI century.
And yes, we need hackathons too !