Are hackathons just cons?
Published 22 May 2018 by Elsa Ferreira
Are hackathons a new form of exploitation? Does the hacker culture serve as a consent factory as suggested by two American sociologists? Makery investigated among those who take part in these fast prototyping marathons.
“Exploitation” in the hackathon… Last March, the American magazine Wired shed some light on the marvelous world of innovation by revealing Sharon Zukin’s investigative work, co-signed by the PhD student Max Papadantonakis. Sharon Zukin is a sociologist and teacher in New York. The two sociologists observed during one year seven public hackathons in New-York, all sponsored. Conclusion: “Fictional expectations that benefit all is a powerful strategy for manufacturing workers’ consent in the ‘new’ economy. (…) Clearly sponsors aim to benefit financially and operationally from the prototype APIs that the participants create. However, participants benefit by honing skills and learning new ones, networking and gaining recognition for their work and talent. Yet, for the most part, hackathons reflect an asymmetry of power in favor of corporate sponsors.”
In other words, sums up the Wired journalist, “institutions use the allure of hackathons, with sponsors, prizes, snacks, and potential for career advancement, to get people to work for free.”
This isn’t the first criticism for this fast prototyping “model” that constitutes the hackathon, term obtained by contracting the words “hacker” and “marathon”. Developers, makers or/and designers all gather during one of these innovation marathons to solve a challenge in a given time frame (often between 24 and 48 hours), and most of the time in teams. Hackathons emerged in an informal manner in the 1960s and 1970s in specialized universities such as MIT, where students got together to gain access to rare computers with precious computational time, to code together all night long and wait for the results in order to make sure their program functioned (if you are interested in the emergence of the hacker culture, Hackers: heroes of the Computer Revolution, by Steven Levy, will be your new bible).
The hackathon proved to be particularly adapted to innovation with a temporality that favors risk taking and cunning solutions. This laid-back competition format took up more and more space in the worlds of technology and design, was greeted with open arms by universities, companies, research institutions and even governments. In France, 200 or so hackathons were organized in 2016, three quarters of which were public, according to the data collected by the specialized company Bemyapp, thus placing the country in fifth position worldwide. At the risk of losing their way…
So in 2016, a rather admiring press presented in France the concept of the hacker house, a start-up house where developers live and develop projects around the clock. The concept, however, can be upsetting: resorting to trainees excessively, non-regulatory hours and unsatisfactory compliance to the Labor Code. “Bloody start-ups, you should be ashamed”, said the French artistic director and webdesigner Julien Dubedout in a widely shared opinion column.
Some organizers, even closer to the hackathon universe, made a big splash with participation conditions at best tactless, at worse dishonest. In 2015, the bank Capitol One put in its terms and conditions for a hackathon in San Francisco “an irrevocable, royalty-free, worldwide right to license to use, review, assess, test and otherwise analyze” the applications produced during the event. Before apologizing and claiming it was…a mistake.
At Makery, we widely followed hackathons, wherever they took place: at the Elysée palace (seat of the French presidency), at the Paris City Hall after the terrorist attacks, for Wikimedians or tech music enthusiasts. We even covered the emergence of the hackacon, criticism of the hackathon. In order to find out what the hackathonians’ universe covered (are they free, slaves or uberized into tech lumpenproletariat?), we went to meet the primary stakeholders.
“Developers are expensive”
“The objective of some hackathons is definitely to obtain free work”, honestly acknowledges Kevin Lewis, president of Hacksmiths, the technology association from Golsmiths university in London that organizes among others the Sex Tech Hack or the Music Hack Day. Kevin Lewis, who also organizes hackathons for businesses, is in a good position to talk about this: he was able to observe sixty odd hackathons, be it as a participant, a volunteer or an organizer. “Maybe the intent is not as malicious as that, but hey, yeah, you can have people working on your challenges, and that is valuable. And developers are expensive. You can run an event for not very much money and have lots of people working on your problems, your business skills.”
Biased hackathons far from represent the majority of the ecosystem, he however clarifies. Hackathon has today become an umbrella term that aggregates numerous types of events: “They include hackathons that look more like start-up generators, or a business development kind of hackathon, a corporate hackathon, corporate hackathon where developers are paid to take part.” When Lewis organizes hackathons on behalf of companies, he explains that the rules are clear: either the hackers are paid, or they keep ownership of their creations.
The hackathons he organizes with Hacksmiths are far more informal. “We are here to learn, work in groups and build cool things.” Cool yes, but sponsored nevertheless. At the Sex Tech Hack, the sex toy businesses Hot Octopuss and Mystery Vibe supplied the products that the hackers could distort, the prizes (a choice of sex toys), and Samsung Internet funded and organized trainings in VR. At the Music Hack Day, it was the Roli business, specialized in musical technologies (also organizers of hackathons internally) that footed the bill.
The organizers are volunteers and the money collected is mainly used to feed the hackers, says Kevin Lewis. “Free event with free food. It comes at a price: the price may be to listen to some talk at the beginning or maybe think about a challenge.” At the Music Hack Day, sponsors did come with challenges. “But the challenges are not about getting free work but more about getting some feedback. It’s useful because they go back and improve it. It is a service you can pay for but… you know… the cynicism has to stop somewhere.”
Although the Hacksmiths hackathons are free, open to all, with a friendly atmosphere, others appear much more professional. For example, this French law firm that organizes a “legaltech contest” to develop a tool “that may bring added value for the clients and the firm”. “We wanted to create our own solution that would perfectly meet the needs expressed by our clients”, justifies one of the lawyers in charge. The students who won the competition then developed their solution within the firm…during an internship.
Or at the hackathon organized in France by the government around the not so funky theme of the Personal Activity Account (a new modern way of protecting workers, adapted to the current business world, by giving everyone the means to build and make their professional career evolve). A recidivist government (even though, meanwhile, the elections changed its appearance): at the launch hackathon of the Digital school, under the presidency of François Hollande, the instructions were already well-defined. “The idea wasn’t to say swell, they developed this’ for free”, said Mounir Mahjoubi, at the time at BETC Digital and today Secretary of State for digital matters. “If the project comes to fruition, before making it public and useable by millions of users, it will undergo a second validation step with professionals. If one team wishes to do so, it will have the support from professionals from the different Ministries”. To the best of our knowledge, none of these projects followed this path.
The hackathon on a generic issue (healthcare, inclusion, security) can sometimes conceal other intentions, more targeted. Alastair Flynn, 18, 1st year student in Computer Science at Oxford University, tells us about his Google HashCode hackathon, one of the biggest on Earth. “The issue was to create an efficient algorithm for an autonomous taxi service (i.e. write code that decides which taxi should service which request based on its current location and so on). As I’m sure you can tell, this is also very much an issue to which an optimal solution would be very profitable for Google if they were planning to set themselves up as a competitor to Uber.”
Fun and experience
So, exploitation? The hackers we questioned are unanimous: hackathons are fun. The atmosphere, the collaboration (by far the element the most mentioned and appreciated by hackers), the opportunity to work with people with different skills and in an environment outside work, turn the experience into a moment of pleasure, leisure and encounters, quite far from the exploitation atmosphere. “Most participants do not feel they are exploited” admits Sharon Zukin.
Nevertheless. “Certain hackathons are a bit exploitative since their main purpose is to advertise some product of the main sponsor” reckons Alina, 28, who has two hackathons up her sleeve (five-hour mini-hacks, she clarifies, “the time I’m prepared to invest for a hackathon”). “You end up spending half of your coding time trying to make the goddam API work, or reading the sponsor’s specs, etc. These are low-quality hackathons and you simply do not go there, or if you are already there, stand up and leave, and enjoy the rest of your weekend.” But for this PhD student in Computer Science “it is nice to sit for one coding session and do something hands on.”
Above all, asking students to work for free is not really a new practice, notes Roisin Tierney, 21, Illustration Animation student at Kingston School of Art, London. “It is true to some extent that it is a new form of free labor. However, universities have been doing this for years already with live briefs. Big companies send briefs to universities that turn them into a form of competition where the winner gets to have his work seen. The work is unpaid and sometimes companies don’t even use the winner’s work.”
She took part in her first hackathon in April, Tools for Change, a series of civic hackathons around the major social issues of our time organized by Liza Mackenzie from Makerversity. And she has every intention to take part in others. “Having said that, I do not think I would participate in a hackathon unless it was socially engaging and focusing on ways to raise awareness on a topic or help to tackle it.”
Making citizen ideas emerge
“Tech for good” is a permanent feature with hackers. A large number of hackathons are organized around society themes. From climate change to Brexit, including healthcare with the NHS Hack Day in England, the opioid crisis in the US or the Hacking Health Camp in Europe; from security (Nec Mergitur) to knowledge (Wikipedia) including refugees… Out of 140 hackathons noted by the sociologist Sharon Zukin in New York in 2015, 23 were organized by non-profit organizations around citizen and social causes, thus placing these topics in second position (behind education).
For participants, hackathons represent the means to give time and expertise to a cause. They also give the opportunity to turn innovation into a more open process. Jack, 22, studying at Kingston School of Art, who took part in the hackathon on climate from Makerversity: I believe that design shouldn’t be esoteric, good design should be for everyone. As makers, we have an obligation to create work which makes a social, economic and political statement.”
Opening innovation to as many people as possible. This is what Guillaume Chanson also supports. Guillaume is a serial hacker (“a game jam, two hackathons, two weekend start-ups”, he tells us) and an engineering student on an apprenticeship at Nantes Metropolis in France. Since “we no longer want an engineer product coming straight out of a R&D center (like Linky–a French smart electric meter–where the citizen appropriation is 0%), we ended up organizing hackathons. It’s a gateway to discussions with citizens to make real needs and ideas emerge.” Regarding smart cities, anyway, hackathons open to all are particularly well suited for this opening, reckons the project leader of smart city experimentations.
What if it were the genius of the format? Flattering egos, making use of the hacker culture and diffusing an after all rather precarious start-up culture. Sharon Zukin also refers to entreprecariat, this notion developed by the designer and researcher Silvio Lorusso. “Sponsors fuel the romance of digital innovation by appealing to hackers’ aspirations to be multi-dimensional agents of change”, writes the sociologist.
And she clarifies for Makery that it is an “economical exploitation of participants”, with the added benefit of “entrepreneur individuals who are self-motivated and work hard”. Even if “exploitation is not a word we use in our article. We interpret hackathons as a new form of socialization for a highly skilled workforce which is being pushed to produce highly valued products in a very competitive economic situation for all businesses.” For an exceptional situation, an exceptional response. Innovation is well worth it, is it not?
Read the article published in “Wired” or consult the full study (for a fee)