The UK government held an event on Monday where it asked civil servants and software developers to design apps and websites that can help solve the nation’s youth unemployment problem.
But many of the people who showed up for “JobHack” at London’s £50 million Digital Catapult Centre didn’t really understand what they were there for or how they were meant to achieve anything in the six hours or so that they had.
Business Insider spoke to a number of participants at the event who were critical of the hackathon, as well as several others who weren’t sure whether the government was making the most of its resources.
The Cabinet Office had hoped that the hackathon would result in new technologies that could help to get the 500,000 unemployed youths in the UK into work.
KMPG management consulting manager and JobHack participant Margherita Bassanese told Business Insider half-way through the one-day hackathon that her team was unlikely to build an innovative app, or any piece of software for that matter.
“It’s too short. My flatmate is a data scientist and she does these hackathons. They usually set a weekend challenge so you have more time,” she said. “They have given us a lot of data that don’t actually make sense. Just to understand what ‘inactive’ means took us half the morning.”
On the day of the hackathon, participants were told to “hack away” at government data sets such as school performance tables, apprenticeship vacancies, educational options, and earning outcomes. They were encouraged to come up with new ways to “ensure young people can get access to the training and employment opportunities they need to succeed.”
The majority of people at the hackathon appeared to be civil servants from various government departments, including the Cabinet Office; the Department for Education; the Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills; and the Department for Work and Pensions.
There were a few developers and designers around too, as well as employees from large corporates like KPMG.
Several of the teams said they struggled to get to grips with the data sets and build anything of any real value. Some teams questioned why other teams were out conducting surveys on the street, wasting potentially valuable hackathon time in the process.
Bassanese’s teammate Edward Munn, a desk officer at the Department for Work and Pensions, described the event as “totally government,” adding that “it couldn’t be more government.”
Dominic White, an MA student at the Hyper Island creative business school in Manchester, questioned whether the government would back anything he produced.
“Everything we’re going to come up with is going to require capital investment and some money going into it and someone being responsible for it,” he said.
Aiming to solve the world’s problems with a hackathon
Hackathons are great ideas in theory, and companies like Google and Facebook have built some notable features that have been rolled out to millions off the back of these events, including Facebook Chat (now Messenger) and an early version of the Facebook Timeline.
But now there are policy makers, startups and “influencers” trying to jump on the hackathon bandwagon.
Minister for the Cabinet Office, Matt Hancock, became the latest politician to get behind hackathons when he showed support for JobHack.
“It’s hugely exciting that the government is now embracing new ways of solving common problems,” he said on the day. “There’s a huge opportunity to use new technology to make sure that every young person gets the best start in life. We want to seize that opportunity to help everyone – no matter what the circumstances of their birth – achieve their full potential.”
Harry Fiarhead, policy analyst at the Taxpayers Alliance Network, questioned whether the Cabinet Office was trying to jump on the hackathon bandwagon just because it’s cool.
“New approaches can be useful but the government should not get distracted by technology fashions,” he said. “Instead, it should focus on providing taxpayers with better access to the data they pay for to allow innovation.”
The Cabinet Office said it had not received any negative feedback over the event. It also stressed that participants were told to come up with ideas and concepts as opposed to finished solutions.
Techstars explains how hackathons should be done
Tak Lo, director at startup accelerator Techstars, conceded: “The most successful Hackathons are ones that involve a broad community, people genuinely caring about trying new things and pushing new technologies/ideas, partners that are really open with their challenges and APIs, and mentors/judges that push teams to really push the envelope.
“You’re not going solve world peace in 24 hours, but you’re going to generate ideas and some solutions. And then it’s all about the follow up and how to take those ideas forward.”