Coming off HackTPS, which is a hackathon sponsored by Toronto Police Services and Ryerson’s DMZ, I wanted to take a few lines to highlight some takeaways from the event and reflect.
Business Case First
To be successful, you need to build the business case first, then worry about building something.
This reflects a lot of the ideas about the design thinking methodology that has gained so much traction. Not only should you find a problem, but you also need to think about how sustainable your model is and your ability to monetize the idea.
It’s really easy to get bogged down in a “code-code-code” mentality, especially at a hackathon like HackTPS. While it’s important to have some product to show, few judges end up asking about the technical stack or how you implemented the solution. What they end up caring about is your thought process on the problem, your business model, and assumptions that you made.
Keep It Simple
Building on the previous idea, you really don’t need to make your code the most complex and advanced as possible. What matters the most is that it works. No judge has ever asked “How many hours did you stay up to finish this? How many bugs did you solve?”
We put a lot of pride on “taking the hard way” and “making something for scratch.” But hey, those “easy ways out” exist and should be used if they fit in with your solution.
As an example, the runner-up for this hackathon made an AI chatbot that would allow TPS to handle and troubleshoot many of the unnecessary 911 calls that could occur to a service.
Did they hard code that themselves? Build the ML and AI algorithms from scratch? Nah, they used Google’s DialogFlow service which had all this information plugged in and ready to go.
The result? They got 2nd place at the hackathon, spent maybe 4 hours implementing their solution, and had something functional to show the judges.
Don’t work hard. Work smart.
Partnership and Innovation
What I loved about this event was how progressive and forward thinking it was. This was the TPS, a government service that sponsored this hackathon.
The government usually moves really slow, but this event was a great example of how they can move just a little faster by putting the right incentives and challenges in place.
Other universities can definitely learn from the DMZ, Ryerson’s startup accelerator, who ran this event. Accelerators are great community hubs for running events and fostering innovation. They are initiatives which pay dividends via the solutions coming out these accelerators and how they impact the community. Upping the university’s reputation is another great side-effect of these initiatives.
If even the government and police services can speed up the pace of innovation, then there’s significant potential for this to occur with other institutions. Private companies, non-profits, and universities can all learn from DMZ programs and consider how they can incorporate some of these ideas into their own initiatives.
Congrats to the winners. They built a comprehensive dashboard and community-building solution that can enhance community safety and encourage reporting.
But while we are obsessed with winners, they are only the tip of the iceberg. Sometimes they might not even be the best solutions.
I will point out that judges are biased towards picking a solution that they were looking for. That solves the specific problem. To me, that means that there is a lot of hidden and missed opportunities that don’t make it to the podium or final judging rounds. Technologies and concepts that judges didn’t consider or weren’t looking for but have as much potential as the winners.
There was one team I talked to with a very interesting solution. There is currently so much focus on text and imaging analysis. Instead, they opinionated that it was possible to focus on text-only.
People type up reports anyways to capture detail. They built a solution where people could send texts about incidents or concerns to a service. This service would then be able to build out a model of the city and map out these incidents effectively over time. It would cut down on the data and computing power normally used to process images and video, while still providing mapping and community analytics capabilities.
These guys didn’t make it to the finals, but it’s an example of how it’s easy to miss talent and ideas just because they didn’t go out and win the competition. Of course, the winners have good ideas, but don’t discount those who didn’t get the same attention.
Learning Happens In Layers
This was my third full-weekend hackathon and 5th hacking event. I still haven’t built something that I am insanely proud of and sometimes I catch myself feeling frustrated that I can’t contribute more.
But I have noticed improvement. Every hackathon I get a little bit better. What took me 6 hours at the last hackathon takes me 20 minutes now. Knowledge snowballs and compounds on itself.
I started out being barely able to slap together a website. Now I can implement a database, pull information from API’s, code servers, and build a whole application from the bottom up.
I catch myself looking at some of the winning teams or immensely talented developers and feeling a little envious that I am not at their level yet.
But I am getting there, and each event I attend or problem that I solve is another layer that preps me for the next challenge.