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Global Intelligence for the Digital Transition

Zimbabwean newspaper publisher holds hackathon to spur innovation

[stextbox id=”info” caption=”Tips for news hackathons” collapsing=”false” collapsed=”false” mode=”css” float=”true” align=”right” width=”225″]• Bring together internal and external developers

• Give participants a theme to focus their development

• Think of ways to practically develop innovations that come out of hackathons[/stextbox]

Zimbabwe news business Alpha Media Holdings recently held what it described as Harare’s first ever hackathon, which brought together mobile, web and software developers in a fast-paced collaborative competition.

The competition saw 16 entries from 25 web, mobile and software developers working individually and in teams for 9 hours. To help give focus to the event, AMH – which publishes NewsDay, The Standard and the Zimbabwe Independent, and is an MDLF client – told participants that their applications should focus on one or more of the following:

1. Mobile applications to disseminate media content.

2. CrowdsourcingCrowdsourcingTaking a task that would conventionally be performed by a contractor or… 3. Applications that compiled daily commodity prices for traders.

Prince Kaguda took top honours for his SMS and USSD-based (unstructured supplementary service data-based) news application, which allows users to subscribe to the news service for free, with financial support coming from advertising.

Participants were told that not only would winners take home some nice gadgets, including a Samsung Galaxy tablet and a Nokia smartphone, but that they would also be introduced to companies to pursue further development of their projects.

Kaguda told technology news website Techzim:

We’re going to incorporate the feedback we got from the judges and, with the assistance of the Alpha and Telecel, launch the news application.

The second place prize went to Shaun Benjamin, who tried to tick all of the boxes in terms of the criteria set out for the competition by creating a crowdsourced platform for collecting and distributing commodity prices. The final prize winner in third place was Tonderai Shamuyarira, who created an app that allows people to anonymously submit text or images for news reports.

Hackathons rising in popularity

Hackathons, also known as hack days or hackfests, are gaining in popularity as a way for developers to show off their skills, to build applications that address specific issues or to increase collaboration in organisations. In addition to this hackathon held last week in Zimbabwe, the Open Data & Democracy Initiative will hostHostAny computer on a network that offers services or connectivity to other…

For developers, it is a chance to show off their skills to fellow developers and also to potential employers or investors. For groups like the Open Data & Democracy Initiative, it allows them to promote development of certain types of apps.

For AMH, chairman Trevor Ncube said: “The purpose of the event is to identify people throughout the country interested in building applications to help Zimbabwe solve economic problems.”

The hackathon is just a start, and AMH wants to create a technology hub, a permanent place where developers and entrepreneurs  can collaborate on projects to take advantage of the mobile and technological boom sweeping the continent. Innovation centres and technology hubs have been popping up all over Africa in countries including Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa.

How to host your own hackathon

News organisations including the BBC, the New York Times and the newspaper where I was an editor, The Guardian, all have held hackathons or hack days.

Why? For news organisations, it’s a great opportunity to break down the walls in your organisation. For editors and journalists who are not familiar with developing mobile and web applications, it gives them an opportunity to build up experience with the process. Editors and journalists learn what can be done in a short amount of time. The type of rapid development that is the hallmark of a hackathon parallels the demands of tight editorial deadlines, and developers get a sense of the urgency that breaking news requires.

At The Guardian, we also made a point 0f including external developers and digital thinkers to help inject new thinking, and as they developed, we also started to introduce commercial staff to the mix. This meant that we weren’t just being creative with the technology but also developing ideas on how we could earn valuable revenue through these innovations.

Hack days aren’t just a place for blue sky thinking. They can also deliver practical new projects. The first hack day at The Guardian gave rise to the very popular Data Blog and was pivotal in helping launch the paper’s data journalism efforts.

When planning your own hackathon:

• Include both staff and external developers and digital thinkers.

• Give the hackathon, for example, mobile, social or location services, to help focus participants.

• Think of practical ways to develop innovations created during your hackathon.

Article by Kevin Anderson

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