Hackathon is a combination of two words, “hack” and “marathon” — the word ‘hack’ as is used in the term ‘hackathon’ does not refer to a computer crime but is used in the sense of playful programming.

Hackathons are a way to work jointly in which computer programmers, software developers, graphic designers and others in the field sit together and work out a solution for any problem, i.e, usually the theme of the event. Hackathons usually take place for a day to a week and participants are required to stay at the venue during the entire event.

Hackathons are a great way to invest in the future of technology. The culture of hackathons is no longer restricted to the Western countries; it’s on the rise in Pakistan as well.

Recently Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology (Szabist) organised at its Karachi campus, a 48-hour student hackathon with a theme to ‘automate any manual process of Pakistan’. Students from various universities participated in the event. A similar affair with a different theme titled ‘civic hackathon’ was recently held at The Second Floor (T2F) in collaboration with Pakistan Software Houses Association (PASHA). The aim of this hackathon was to develop open source solutions to boost the government’s efficiency in tackling citizens’ problems.

Hackathons can play a vital role in the growth of our information technology (IT) sector. The need is to spread this culture as much a possible. According to Asad Ur Rehman, Executive Director (training and consultancy), Open Integrated Solutions (Pvt) Ltd, “Organising hackathons or similar events provides an opportunity to students to demonstrate their abilities.

“They can develop projects based on their studies at university/college and create some useful and exciting tools. It also helps them to do some practical work using their theoretical knowledge. Such activities provide a chance to the students to improve their concepts by developing various useful apps to solve real life problems.”

But in a developing country like Pakistan, organising such events is not a piece of cake. There are many issues to handle during the course. “Security is the main concern while we organise a hackathon,” says Assistant Professor, Computing Sciences department, Szabist, Zohaib Jan.

“Hackathons usually take place for two days to a week and during the event — if organised on campus — the university’s management is responsible for the security of the participants,” says Prof Zohaib adding that the participants, which include girls as well, are required to stay in the campus or any selected venue during the event and in a city like Karachi, where the law and order situation is quite unpredictable, assuring security during any such an event is the main concern.

Prof Zohaib further elaborates that only 10 female students participated in their recently-held hackathon because many parents felt uncomfortable sending their daughters for night stays in the campus that makes hackathons, mainly in Pakistan, a male-dominated event and holds back girls from honing their skills.

“Arranging accommodation and provision of electricity without any hassles throughout the programme are two other issues,” mentions Professor Zohaib while Mr Asad identifies these problems as ‘sponsorship issues’. He says, “Primary stakeholders such as IT professionals and academia and secondary stakeholders such as PASHA and Pakistan Software Export Board (PSEB) can help sponsor such events more frequently.”

Professor Zohaib, too, is of the same opinion. He says that any organisation which is directly or indirectly linked to the IT sector can help organise hackathons. Asad Ur Rehman urges the need for communication among all stakeholders. “If all stakeholders can get in touch using some formal platform, organising events like hackathons will become much easier,” he says.

Hackathon themes may vary. They may aim to develop any application or use any particular programming language; hackathons may be held for a cause as well. For instance, to develop apps to improve government, combat issues like human trafficking, pollution and to create educational tools and software for disaster management, etc.

Activities like hackathons both at the academic and professional levels, especially at academic level, are extremely important. Hackathons if organised in colleges/universities provide the students with an idea of working like professionals and finding out solutions for real-life problems. As when these students step into professional life, they will find it easier to meet the challenges of today’s IT world.

The bottom line here is that theoretical knowledge is not enough especially in the world of programming and software development; and opportunities to participate in hackathons can boost students’ expertise in ‘creating solutions’.

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