Hackathoning Against the Global Pandemic

Simonas Žilinskas is a second-year student from our Dijon campus. As the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, Simonas returned to his native Lithuania and began to look for ways to get involved in finding solutions or volunteering aid. Thanks to his previous experience in the Lithuanian startup scene and in various hackathons, he joined the organising team of “Hack the Crisis”, an online hackathon that took place from 20 to 22 March 2020, which aimed to bring about solutions and innovations in response to the global pandemic. Interview with Simonas on the event and its outcomes.

What is a hackathon? How did “Hack the Crisis” come about as a response to the current pandemic?

Seeing how medical professions struggle alone when fighting the crisis, us, programmers, designers, Sciences Po students, marketers (and all of the other digital professions) couldn’t stand the idea of not assisting the effort. We are all aware that there is a community around technology and startups: in the US they have the Silicon Valley, in France “la French Tech” and of course in Lithuania, we have a miniature model of it as well. During “regular” times, we occasionally gather, try consulting, helping and reassuring each other on questions related to code and business. One well-known format of these meetups is known as a hackathon. To make it clear, the “hack” part of a hackathon is not about security breaching, but rather solving problems. As you may guess, the second part of the word is derived from the word marathon. If you cross both, what you obtain is a 48-hour meetup where digital specialists team up and competitively solve problems. Every single time, this type of event receives a few hundred competitors and so the format leads to success almost without exception - teams form and rapidly wonderful products emerge. Thus it seems as though a hackathon would be the key to success in solving some problems that appeared because of Covid-19. 

However, in the context of this crisis, we were forced to reshape the framework of a typical hackathon. We couldn’t organise a live meetup for obvious reasons and we could not make the competitive aspect  the central one. The organising team stood up to the challenge and made Hack the Crisis, one of the first online-only hackathons in Lithuania, with less competition but more willingness to contribute to the greater good (or rather lesser bad).

How did you get involved? What were your responsibilities during the event?

Before Sciences Po, I used to spend my weekends at hackathons. It was my passion and a dream come true to see such unified communities of people much smarter than myself, striving to improve on everyday lives. I met my future colleagues, but also my best friends during this time while traveling from one hackathon to another: happenings that also led me to apply to Sciences Po. 

As I gained experience, I also started organising a bunch of them, and once the Covid-19 crisis started I saw no other better way to contribute with my set of competencies as to organise a hackathon and assemble the community to hack the crisis. A few minutes into preparatory research I came across a hackathon organised by governmental and private organisations on the topic of the crisis and so I joined the organising team. 

Craving for intensive social interaction after weeks in quarantine, I joined and was appointed to lead everything related to participants and teams (as other team members took care of sponsors, mentors, external communications, etc.). As I remember, on the “job description” there was no mention of the fact that the event would gather over 1,000 people. Because of that, it was one of the most challenging weekends of my life, but after relaxing for a day or two after the hackathon I realised that constructing such an initiative and assembling so many dedicated hearts for a common objective left me with more energy than organising it could ever take away.

What were the main goals of Hack the Crisis? What were the outcomes? 

We started organising the online event less than a week before whereas usually organising such an event takes over a month. At least personally, I felt like we had so little time that we did not even get to set key performance indicators, nor vague objectives. Looking back, the organisation of the hackathon just flew, without any interruption or coffee breaks for overthinking: it was a continuous flow of tasks and rapid (sometimes too rapid) problem-solving. 

Entering my first Zoom team call I didn’t even have time to introduce myself - we all dove into what has to be done to make it happen, without thinking what will it bring to society and even less about us as individuals and organisations. We were all centered on the method and we were more in "reaction mode" rather than in a long-term perspective. I suppose in these times you sometimes have to work without preparation, an anticipated schedule and in-depth research as you would usually get used to doing in an academic institution, especially one like Sciences Po. No communications nor action plan in the form of “deux parties, deux sous parties” (essay or oral presentation outline), just pure improvisation. So in this sense, we did not have any concrete goals for Hack the Crisis, we gave the most we could offer of ourselves, and I suppose it was sufficient to create a significant event: at the end, we had over 1,000 participants, over 100 mentors to assist the teams, 48 final products to solve the crisis and a prize pool of about 15k euros and even more in programmes and resources. On top of that, as the organising team, we helped the projects forge partnerships they needed with relevant institutions both from the public and the private sector. 

As an example, one team created a platform connecting enterprises possessing desktop computers that became unused because of the crisis, with families of children that cannot study since they don’t have computers. The project is gathering lots of success around it (and even the President of the Lithuanian Republic recommended the usage of the platform). Others created AI chatbots to help solve the spread of misinformation, or even 3D printed lung ventilation systems.

What can the success of hackathons teach us about the power of focused collaborative projects and the coming together of talented individuals?

Having an extreme mix of ultra-skeptical and hyper-enthusiastic people around me, before the hackathon I was faced with opinions saying we won’t even get to unite 50 people, and honestly, it sounded reasonable. Nevertheless, the contrary outcome proved me and the skeptics of my entourage wrong. I suppose it taught a beautiful lesson of unity and willingness to help when assistance is needed. I sincerely hope it will serve as a valuable empiric example to reject the classic “people are selfish” thesis. And if this example would be attacked by the uniqueness of the case, I would also suggest checking out the hackathons organised in Berlin in which 42,000 active participants contributed (Estonia, the US, and other countries also have their iterations of it). 

Usually, when I participated in hackathons, the jury always asked about the business model - if it was B2B - business to business, or B2C - business to consumer. During the hackathon, when one marketing specialist asked the organising team what kind of business model should they lean towards, we recommended them to be H2H - human to human. Honestly, I hope that after the crisis this model will stick around. 

Do you think the results of hackathons like these could influence the way we interact online even after lockdown ends? 

Well, first of all, I hope that hackathons like these will contribute to a faster ending of the infection and the lockdown (or at least help limit the casualties). Nevertheless, it will also leave solid technological infrastructure. Most of the projects developed are not single-use and will be repurposed. The teams behind them will also stay in contact, forge strong ties and will be more efficient in creating new improvements to our lives. “Never waste a good crisis” is the phrase that pops into my mind when I start thinking of the posteriority of today’s challenges. And after all, if we do not find ways to reuse the results of the hackathon when the brighter tomorrow will come, we will at least be better prepared for the next crisis on its day 1. And from my side, I promise to make sure the tech community will do its best. 

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