Tuesday, September 19, 2017

By the glow of the screen, tech heroes emerge

David Madden is explaining to reporters what to expect at Myanmar’s second-ever hackathon on Friday September 5 when the power shuts off.

Hackers present tech solutions cooked up in 48 hours Myanmar’s second-ever hackathon. Photo: Thiri LuHackers present tech solutions cooked up in 48 hours Myanmar’s second-ever hackathon. Photo: Thiri Lu

The lights went out at Code for Change Myanmar’s March NGO-themed hackathon, too, and they went out again as more than 100 participants prepared for the business-oriented hacking marathon to begin.

But Mr Madden, the event’s showrunner and founder of Code for Change Myanmar, remains unruffled. “Few moments in the dark there, but … it’s a hackathon,” Mr Madden says later on. “We’re going to have a few little hiccups on the way and keep on pushing through.”

The temporary blackout doesn’t diminish the electrical energy effusing from the developers and designers, either. It’s not pitch black with a few mobile devices giving off white light in the Ooredoo office at MICT Park, where the “Business Solutions Hackathon” will take place. One seems to illuminates half a hallway.

“The most exciting thing is just the energy here,” says Leslie Marbury, director at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The American organisation is one of nine sponsors supporting the event along with Internews, Ooredoo Myanmar, Ideabox Myanmar, Nescafe, Red Bull, Xcite Noodles, Singtech and Edulink Australia.

That last doubles as one of the companies which presented business challenges to participants on Friday. The six enterprises – Sharky’s, Yangon Bakehouse, Khaing Khaing Kyaw, Fresco, Opportunities NOW and Edulink Australia – asked how technology could help them with issues like logistics and accounting.

The hackathon sees local Myanmar businesses submitting tech problems that need solving. Teams of designers, developers and entrepreneurs then have a set amount of time, 48 hours, to put together their best efforts at fixing the problem, with the top solutions receiving prizes.

On the line were cash prizes, Singtech devices and scholarships to Edulink Australia. First place wins $2000 to share; second, $1000; and third, $500. The kitty had doubled since the first hackathon.

Judges would evaluate solutions according to four question-oriented criteria. Did the tech fix the enterprise’s issue? How creative and innovative is the fix? How much did the team actually accomplish during the hackathon? And how could a particular fix apply to a market, not just a business?

While the problems were specific, the rubric urged developers to consider building tech that addressed a common need rather than a single enterprise, and to take a micro challenge and create a macro solution.

“Maybe the thing that you’ve built or start building this weekend could actually be used by many, many other businesses,” Mr Madden said.

One team chose to go big. Ye Myat Min said his group didn’t pick a problem to address, and instead decided to put together a platform since many of the companies faced a unifying challenge: logistics in Myanmar. The idea was to combine aspects of foodpanda, the Rocket Internet delivery startup, and Uber, which gets its drivers from local communities.

But big dreams can put certain realities of the Myanmar tech infrastructure into sharp relief. During Ye Myat Min’s team’s presentation, one judge asked if the solution would be powered by mobile payment. The answer: as no framework for mobile payment exists yet in Myanmar, drivers would take cash on delivery – making the process of obtaining a 5 percent commission from drivers a complicated one.

Meanwhile, another participant talked about an institutional issue in Myanmar’s tech scene: the gender gap. Twenty-year-old coder and developer Shwee Yee Mya Win was part of a group, Team ACE, made up predominantly of women – a fact she’s very proud of. Roughly 20 percent of hackathon’s participants were women. Regarding women in the tech community, “there needs to be more,” Shwee Yee Mya Win said. “When David asks, ‘Is there any woman role model?’ … I have no idea.”

“I hope there will be someone to guide us,” she continued. “I’m trying to be one of the role models.”

Though the hackathon can’t fix Myanmar’s infrastructure in one weekend, the event does a lot to foster community, according to attendees. Mr Madden outlined participants’ mission for the weekend: to build tech solutions, learn from each other, and have fun.

One of the hackathon’s youngest participants, 17-year-old Nyat Min Latt, says the event helps connect people. “We have talent but this community, it’s not out there. They’re in their own little rooms and they’re doing these awesome things,” he said. “These kinds of events bring people out … [you try to] meet people who share the same passions as you, and it makes things much better.”

A vast majority, more than 80, of the attendees stayed over at the Ooredoo office on Friday night. Some could be seen catching some shuteye in a resting room filled with beanbags the next day; there was one room apiece set aside for men and women.

On Saturday, mentor Htoo Myint Naung flew a drone up and down the hallway. A little later, participants became prime targets for Nerf darts. “It’s really fun to get a hold of all the people we know, on the same floor, and spend 48 hours doing something … together,” Htoo Myint Naung said.

The hackers had been going for 45 hours when team presentations began on Sunday before judges U Tun Thura Thet of Myanmar Information Technology, Mon Mon Myint Thu of AcePlus Solutions, Hugh Mason of JFDI.Asia and Gwendolyn Regina Tan of Tech in Asia. But the energy of the room crackled when it came time to announce winners a few hours later.

The awards ceremony is hardly a horse race, with teams quickly identified as first, second and third. The assembled groups pick a “Hacker’s Choice” winner among themselves; one team gets special mention for a particularly “cheeky” presentation; and the team of teenage developers receives $100 of airtime each from Ooredoo Myanmar. “Thank you for abandoning your homework,” Madden joked.

Finally, U Tun Thura Htet reads the first-place winners like a presenter at the Oscars. “First prize … goes to … ACE!” The crowd erupts in cheers and applause which doesn’t stop for half a minute. “I can’t believe it,” Shwee Yee Mya Win said. “It’s like a dream.”

“If [people] want a female role model specifically, this is it,” said judge Gwendolyn Regina Tan.

Deputy Chief of Mission for the US Embassy Virginia Murray said she was deeply impressed by the attendees’ work. “To my mind, this event is a matter of small things and big things,” she said.

The hackathon linked the minute to the universal, as participants paid dual attention to details necessary to design an app and the required steps for delivering that solution to a wider marketplace. Ms Murray said USAID also saw the event in micro and macro terms, as the organisation wants to support SMEs in Myanmar to assist the nation in facilitating growth in IT and the economy.

Weekends like these mark a beginning point for technologists and entrepreneurs in Myanmar, especially the 117 participants in the “Business Solutions Hackathon”. If a team’s solution appealed to companies that participated over the weekend, Mr Madden said, they’d committed to moving forward with those behind the fix. If the hacking team was on board as well, Ideabox would follow closely on the heels of this process, providing extra financial resources and expertise, he added.

Myanmar’s connectivity revolution, referenced at the hackathon, is also in its beginning stages. And while for now, the country’s tech community might have to put up with a few minutes in the dark here and there, its developers and designers are hacking on.