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Idealog goes inside Datacom’s social enterprise hackathon

“Extraordinary: design a future where technology provides a better society” was the theme for the sixth edition of Datacom’s annual hackathonDatacomp. Using technology to create new solutions that have social impact, the 48-hour hackathon brought together close to 300 participants – making it the largest Datacomp ever, and one of the biggest hackathons ever to take place in Aotearoa.

Datacom Australia/New Zealand CEO Greg Davidson – who was also on hand for the hackathon – said it’s much more than a competition to create something. “It’s not actually a competition,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to learn. We chose social engineering [as the theme] to unlock the ideas in ourselves and our customers. It unleashes creativity.”

That creativity was clearly evident, with Datacom employees, customers, volunteers, and design students from Unitec, Media Design School and Manukau Institute of Technology all gathering in Datacom’s fancy new building in Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter innovation district to create technologies that make the world a better place – and then get judged on those technologies. While some of the teams already knew each other, others did not. And with only two days to put something together, things were full-go, to say the least.

Hence the rise of “tent city” – literally a collection of tents set up among the desks that normally are filled with Datacom employees sitting at them. Hence, too, the sheer number of sleeping bags, blankets, pillows, and takeaway boxes spread all over the place, as if everyone were gathering for a giant sleepover rather than trying to change the world. Suits? Nope. Shoes? Fuggedaboutit. Slippers, onesiespyjamas and sweatpants? Yes, yip, yup and yes.

With such a tight deadline to meet, there was no time to worry about things like putting a tie on. After all, the problems the teams were working to solve were much bigger than making sure blouses were ironed.

One team, the “Desgenerates,” was working on an app that would allow people to donate money via online banking to charity and support services when they saw people begging or who appeared to be in a difficult economic and/or housing situation. Team leader Andrew Hannan said managing 24 people on the team wasn’t easy – even more so with 48 hours to have everything finished. “You end up prioritising things.”

Some Desgenerate team members were even up all night working, Hannan said – but was quick to add it was because they were so committed what they were doing and the potential for the app to help solve the problem of poverty.

On the floor below, project manager Myles McHugh and the Happy Life team were busy developing an online tool for people to do surveys on their phones after taking a course on preventing child abuse. The idea, McHugh said, was to help convince the Government that such courses could be effective in reducing child abuse. “We’re all really passionate and want to make a difference,” he said. “We’ve got a very high rate of child abuse, and it’s under-reported.”

McHugh said he was able to get about four hours of sleep. And, yes – some team members worked all through the fluorescent light-lit night. “This lets us try new technologies, new innovations. We came here with a mission. Every five weeks a child dies in New Zealand from abuse.”

Unitec student Jessie Smith – studying a bachelor of creative enterprise – was back at Datacomp for the second year. She didn’t intitially have a team, so she joined with a  group trying to solve hunger in New Zealand for people who couldn’t afford food. “It a completely different situation to being in university,” she said, adding it was rewarding to be involved.

After 48 hours of non-stop work, the teams were judged by a panel of four judges made up of some of the Land of the Long White Cloud’s top entrepreneurs. They were: Lisa King of Eat My Lunch (her company also provided one of the lunches to Datacomp participants), social entrepreneur and founder of GirlBoss NZ Alexia HilbertidouDatacom Group CEO Jonathan Ladd, and Davidson. “The goal of Datacomp is to practice and therefore learn new ways of developing innovative solutions to the challenges faced by our customers – and society,” Davidson said.

“A range of Datacom customers have posed some tricky real-world problems with a strong socially responsible focus, problems that if solved will improve the lives of people around New Zealand. Innovation sits at the heart of everything we do, it’s the engine that drives our business, so Datacomp is about channelling that innovative know-how to solve a number of social issues and get better results for our customers.”

Davidson also noted how important the annual hackathon is to Datacom’s own people. “Datacomp is a way of exploring beyond the tight bounds of the customer engagements that we usually operate in, to different ways of working. It’s amazing what happens when people are asked to achieve something in short time frames, it can be incredibly galvanising. It shows that our people can come together to co-create solutions and get results quickly. It’s a way of uncovering and fostering an entrepreneurial spirit.

“This is our seventh hackathon in six years, and by the end of this event over 700 people across Datacom will have been trained in new ways of working – lean, rapid prototyping, HCD, lean canvassing, and presentation skills. They have also been exposed to the newest and sharpest tech available.”

And his summary of the weekend as a whole?

“Invention for change.”

(oh, and if anyone is wondering: McHugh’s Happy Life team were named as the winners)

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