Hackathons the problem solver

Large organisations may have trouble thinking like Facebook or young technology start-ups, but that doesn’t mean they can’t borrow their brains from time to time.

Large organisations may have trouble thinking like Facebook or young technology start-ups, but that doesn’t mean they can’t borrow their brains from time to time.

Hackathons are rapidly growing in popularity as a means for organisations to solve problems or thrash out ideas for new technology-based products and services.

They involve software engineers, entrepreneurs and others with special skills coming together in development sessions, usually run over a weekend. A hackathon may involve just an organisation’s employees, or call in external skills.

A hackathon organised by accounting software maker MYOB late last year involving 60 employees of its small-business software team generated 32 product ideas, of which 22 were presented for judging.

Chief technology officer Simon Raik-Allen said five of those ideas were now in development, including a communications tool that allows all users of a set of accounting books to communicate in real time.

He said the session was brilliant for unlocking creative thinking by taking employees outside of their normal lines of reporting.

‘‘A hackathon is about letting your employees think for themselves,’’ Mr Raik-Allen said. ‘‘They understand your business, they understand what is possible, and they understand your systems. And when you put that together, that’s where innovation comes from.’’

Interest in hackathons is growing rapidly, with the recent GovHack event involving about 1000 people around Australia to work with government data.

Sydney-based incubator Pollenizer has organised hackathons for numerous organisations, including one for Sensis that brought in external people to generate ideas based on that company’s core technology.

Pollenizer co-founder Phil Morle said he was now receiving interest from other large businesses.

‘‘We’ve got three very big companies that would like us to do the same thing,’’ Mr Morle said. ‘‘This is a cost-effective new way of creating new innovation and ideation – the cost of this is minute in comparison to having an enterprise-grade team doing a requirements document.’’

Hackathons are also proving to be a low-cost way for not-for-profit organisations to get access to skills and ideas.

In April the mobile developer Alive staged its first Appathon, which used the hackathon concept to bring together engineers and entrepreneurs to develop mobile applications for a group of not-for-profit companies.

Alive’s general manger Matthew Ashley said the event was designed to support companies that could not normally allocate budget to develop a mobile application.

‘‘It was staggering to see the level of participation from individuals giving up their weekends,’’ Mr Ashley said.

Similarly, Pollenizer’s recent Appiness event held in conjunction with Telstra brought together 50 participants and an additional 50 mentors to develop ideas for mobile applications for a group of six charities, including Mission Australia, the St Vincent de Paul Society and the Salvation Army.

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