Singaporean

Digitalising Hackathons: How The "Hack" They're Going Online, And What To Expect

Hackathons seem to have disappeared from Singapore’s start-up scene since the outbreak of Covid-19 earlier this year.

Targeted at enterprising young adults, these mega-events serve as the perfect incubators for the next million-dollar idea. Benefits, in the form of training, network, cash prizes, funding opportunities and more abound.

However, Covid-19 has disrupted the engine of the startup community. For one, Shopee’s much-anticipated 2020 Ultra-Hackathon was pushed to 2021.

Similarly, Startup Weekend Singapore (SWSG) was forced to drop their plans and adapt to last-minute circuit breaker measures.

Joyce Tay, the Director of SWSG, doesn’t expect to see large-scale hackathons resuming anytime soon.

“At best estimates, we might see some smaller hackathons (less than 50 participants) taking place in early to mid-2021,” she said.

That doesn’t mean hackathons will die out though. In fact, hackathons are scaling up, albeit virtually, and they’re actively trying to find the best talent to combat the impact of Covid-19.

Hackathons Defy Circuit Breaker Measures, Move Online

In Singapore, Razer Fintech’s Digital Hackathon was launched in May, at the height of the circuit breaker.

In line with Razer’s US$50 million Covid-19 Support Fund objectives, the hackathon sought to find banking solutions for a COVID-stricken economy.

Hackathon Hackathons Digital Online Covid-19 Razer Fintech Winner Singapore
Razer’s Winning Team / Image Credit: SMU Newswoom

Taking place online, applications like Twitch, Discord and Telegram were used as intermediaries. Virtual presentations and award ceremonies were used in lieu of face-to-face pitches or prototype demonstrations.

The response to digital hackathons has so far been positive. Young adults stuck under lockdown need an outlet for their energies and winning hackathons also provide them with job opportunities and cash prizes.

Partners, country leaders, and industries were more than willing to provide support for hackathons, according to Joyce. More hackathons than ever are being launched to solve problems arising from the global pandemic.

Government-sponsored Startup SG is launching Slingshot 2020 in December, a global deep tech startup competition aimed at finding solutions in a post-COVID world.

Taking place entirely online, winners stand to receive a S$200,000 Startup SG Grant and S$10,000 cash prize sponsored by L’Oreal.

SWSG have seen an influx of eager new sponsors. Their COVID-19 Online Edition saw over 55 countries working together to launch the hackathon.

Hackathon Hackathons Digital Online Covid-19 SWSG Startup Weekend Singapore
Image Credit: Startup Weekend

Over 750 participants from 43 countries took part in April 2020, a record-high turnout.

Adapting to Digital Hackathons Remain An Obstacle

While digital hackathons have been more prolific and successful than anticipated, they come with their own set of limitations.

Joyce observes that Startup Weekend saw a drop in the financial commitment of their sponsors initially, due to the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Organisational challenges also threw a wrench into the mix. Many online platforms are not built for hosting, live streaming or even facilitating thousands of people online at the same time, she adds.

The human element was sorely missed. With a screen acting as an intermediary for communication, ideas may get “lost in translation,” says Joyce.

Socialising is no longer as easy as walking over to someone at the buffet line and introducing yourself.

Manpower also cost more. “We (also) had to bring in higher number of volunteers to ensure all our participants were well-engaged during the hackathon.”

Opening Up Doors Of Opportunities

However, opportunities created by digitisation has opened up avenues of engagement for hackathon organisers that were previously overlooked.

Hackathons are becoming larger and more diverse as participants sign up easily and remotely from cities around the globe. A wider network of mentors and judges are available as well.

Without the infrastructural and logistical costs of setting up a physical hackathon, they can be quickly executed. For instance, Startup Weekend’s digital format took just 16 days to set up.

Hackathons are also no longer limited by the lack of adequately equipped venues in Singapore suitable for hackathons larger than 500 people, Joyce remarks.

There’s also an opportunity to capture a wider audience by launching live pitches for external spectators on public platforms.

The goal is to introduce hackathons to an audience beyond the tech and startup community, says Joyce. “The sky’s the limit for us now.”

The Human Element Remains Crucial

While digital hackathons may be the status quo for a while, physical hackathons will not disappear in time to come.

“Humans are social creatures, and crave human connections,” Joyce surmises. “It’s even more important to be together, in-person when you’re trying to build a startup.”

Hackathon Hackathons Digital Online Covid-19
Image Credit: DW

For the near future, Joyce expects to see hybrid models that incorporate the vibrancy and interactions from a physical hackathon, with the ease of participation and inclusiveness of a digital hackathon.

However, whether hackathons will be able to sustain any form of a recurrent physical presence is unlikely. The potential for disruption is too high to risk investing overtly into a physical space.

Plans will remain up in the air until a vaccine for Covid-19 is found. New Zealand, which remained COVID-free for three months broke its streak yesterday.

For now, funding sources for hackathons will continue to flow in as industries scramble to find talent that can resolve the problems wrought by a pandemic-stricken economy.

“The human spirit of innovation and thirst for great ideas will continue to grow,” says Joyce.

“Even if hackathons die out, there will be new ways to allow people to connect, problem-solve, ideate and cross-pollinate concepts and ideas.”

Featured Image Credit: Startup Weekend Singapore / Facebook

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