7 Aug 2011

Day 1 at the #DarHackathon

Innocent at work, photo by @tahajiwaji
I turned up a little early, finding the large room only sparsely filled, mostly with the organisers wondering whether the turnout would meet their expectations. They needn't have worried as within half an hour the room was nearly full of sharply dressed young Tanzanian software developers itching to get started. Laptops covered every table and a spaghetti network of adaptors and extension cables spread out over the floor.

Thus began the Dar Developers' Dash, also known as the Dar Hackathon (or #DarHackathon on twitter), which kicked off this morning at COSTECH. It follows up on last month's popular BarCampDar event, but with a more particular focus on software developers.

This makes for an event that goes well outside my IT comfort zone, but what better opportunity to see what kind of skills and capacity is out there in the Tanzanian developer community?

The three-day event got going with "quickfire challenges" (pdf), an Idols / X-factor / Star Search-style challenge for developers to solve a particular software challenge live in front of the whole crowd. Their efforts were on public display via a projector, and they had to explain their work as they did it. A 75,000/- prize was on offer for the developer deemed to have dealt best with the task, which in the end went to Innocent of IFM for creating an uncompletable form, where the boxes move away whenever you tried to move your mouse over them.

Next up was the main challenge, the 48 hour hackathon (pdf). Teams of 2-4 developers will report back on Monday with a newly developed piece of software for web, PC or mobile that must fit into one of three categories:
  1. Social impact - something that has a positive impact on people and society as a whole
  2. Innovation - anything that's cool
  3. Business and entertainment - improve how people do business, socialise and have fun
I'm struggling to think of any software that doesn't fit into at least one of those categories, so the task is very broad. Whether that make it easier (more freedom) or harder (less guidance), I'm not sure. But it does mean that I have no idea what kind of software will be presented in two days time. And to be honest, I don't think many of the participants were any clearer by the time I went on my way and left them to it - they were mostly still busily brainstorming away in their groups. I'll report back on Monday with an answer.

This is a technology event that's about people. Not in the sense that Daraja is most familiar with - the end users of mobile phones and computer software - but rather the creators of that software. It's about trying to bring Tanzanian developers together into a community, sharing skills and business ideas, nurturing talent, and of course having some fun in the process.

And to be frank, it's also about trying to catch up with our neighbours. Kenya has a very active developer community, centred around Nairobi's ground-breaking iHub. Uganda has something less well established but along the same lines. Tanzania is just beginning to get itself going on this.

Startup Tanzania (who are behind this event) are part of this. COSTECH (who are also giving their support) have been saying interesting things about fostering ICT innovation for some time, and have plans in place for a Dar ICT park, to be known as Rhapta City. Google are getting active, recently setting up a local Google Technology User Group, and sending Ory Okolloh for a visit. And the MoMo (Mobile Monday) movement has reached Dar.

A lot is happening and at the moment nobody has much of a clue where its all going. But there's a tangible sense that things are on the move. Today's hackathon will help make sure the most important part of any community - the people - keep driving forward.