I’m seeing one announcement after another for design challenges or hackathons for COVID-19, many of them aimed at makers and all online. I’m also seeing the innovation coming from the maker community in response to this crisis. It got me wondering what these challenges hope to accomplish and if they were part of Plan C, the civic response. Frankly, the more I looked, I find many of them to be full of empty promises and poorly thought-out problem statements. Are they even useful or helpful?
I know that it might not be polite of me to say this because I assume the organizers are well-meaning but I will say it anyway. Now is not the time to stand up your organization’s design challenge or hackathon. It’s not productive and it’s not a good way for your organization to help.
Here’s one such announcement:
Today, the United Nations Development Programme is announcing the COVID-19 Detect and Protect Challenge, in partnership with Hackster.io, an Avnet community, and some of the world’s leading technology companies. We’re calling on the global engineering community to support developing countries through the sharing and transfer of open source technology. The top ten hardware and software submissions will receive global recognition and support from our sponsors to distribute these solutions and resources where it’s needed most.
Sharing and transfer of open source technology is happening already, at an incredible rate. What are leading technology companies proposing to do that’s not already being done? What does UNDP promise to do?
Here is an announcement doing double duty from America Makes:
As part of its continued effort to garner the innovation of the additive manufacturing (AM) industry to deliver safe and effective solutions to front line workers across the country, America Makes is announcing two challenges – the Fit to Face – Mask Design Challenge in collaboration with the Department of Veterans Affairs; and the COVID-19 Maker Challenge, a joint event by Challenge America and the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) Innovation Ecosystem.
This is a defense industry group’s effort, part of the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining (NCDMM), not a community effort.
After reading their brief about the face mask challenge, I believe that they haven’t looked at the solutions and designs that are already out there. They want to have their own design and their own process. I’d like them to check out the Montana Mask or the Maker Mask or many others. What criteria do these emerging solutions fail to meet or how can they be improved?
By no means are the challenges limited to the United States. Look at the “EU vs the Virus Challenge,” which asks “can you hack it?”
The European Commission, led by the European Innovation Council and in close collaboration with the EU member states, will host a pan-European hackathon to connect civil society, innovators, partners and investors across Europe in order to develop innovative solutions for coronavirus-related challenges https://euvsvirus.org/
I just can’t see the connection between these groups and hacking of any kind. It looks more like “business as usual,” like a startup competition, because the “business case” for the project is one of four criteria for judging. The biggest challenge we have is that there is not a business case for solving some of the toughest problems. We can’t keep believing that the business case will emerge. The creation of open-source projects that can be shared openly and produced locally at low-cost is the best alternative to business as usual.
Challenging the Challenge
Here’s a list of design challenges and hackathons I’ve seen recently:
- Hackster-United Nations Detect and Protect Challenge – entry deadline June 30
- The Global Hack (closed)
- VHA Makers Challenge – April 25th + May 2+3
- America Makes “Fit to Face” 3DP Challenge – entry deadline April 26
- Global Hackathon (DevPost) (closed)
- EU Virus Challenge – April 24-26
I’m sure there are more challenges than the ones on this list because it is a common response by organizations who want to see themselves as the center of innovation without actually doing the work themselves. Not all the challenges are the same, of course. If the goal is developing mobile apps or generating new startups, go ahead and do a challenge. I don’t want to discourage anyone from participating in challenges but I recommend that you look into the terms of the challenge and its benefits, as well as looking at alternative options.
Many of the challenges strike me as astroturfing of grassroots movements and decentralized efforts, appropriating the language of hackers and makers without sharing core values. The challenges don’t necessarily promote open, shared projects or empower communities to solve their problems, which is what should matter.
Hackster.io’s United Nations Challenge
Let’s go back to the Hackster.io United Nations Development Programme Challenge and look at the details.
I already quoted the press release that said these 15 sponsors would offer “support to distribute these solutions and resources where it’s needed most.” I don’t see a lot of specifics about these efforts. Generally, I don’t see any commitments and the promised benefit is vague enough that no one will be held accountable for delivering upon it. The big question is what do these organizations have in common other than an association with AVNET, the corporate partner.
Look for the details of the challenge, which are scarce:
“The project must be a/an easy-to-replicate, low-cost open source solution to detect or protect Covid-19 in developing countries.”
The challenge is explicit about open-source solutions but it doesn’t offer much more direction than that, except some brochure-level copy from the UNDP here.
Then there are the rules, some of which are baffling:
- Deadline for entries is June 30. (Why rush?)
- Submissions are hidden from other participants until the contest is over. (So much for connecting and collaborating.)
- Project teams are limited to five people. (Is this basketball? Why just five?)
- Judging criteria coming soon. (Really? Like when?)
- Prizes totalling $25K. (10 winners get $1500 each and others get $500. Is that all? Pitiful.)
- The project has to be original. (Define original in an open-source way, will you please?)
Why not throw out the whole ill-advised framework of a challenge? Turn it around so that the UNDP is challenged to figure out which of the many open-source COVID-19 projects they want to support and then give them some funding. Now. Not six weeks from now. Maybe all of the organizations save enough money so that you could give out more than a paltry $25,000 to save the world.
VA’s COVID-10 Makers Challenge
The Veterans Administration has announced a COVID-19 Makers Challenge. Again, it’s got a lot of partners with unidentified roles.
It also offers not much in the way of specifics: “We are seeking challenges arising from the frontline efforts to combat COVID-19.” They are going to have a virtual design session and a two-day make-a-thon at the end of April. Here is their stated goal:
We are looking for specific challenges from the first responder community, including any unique needs arising from COVID-19. Teams of engineers and designers will develop solutions to these challenges using rapid manufacturing processes like 3D printing, that are capable of scaling quickly to meet the needs on the ground.
This is a challenge looking for challenges. Doesn’t anyone at the VA know what some of the challenges are? One must apply to find out, and then only if you qualify to participate. You must apply *not* by submitting a project or your ideas but by describing your credentials.
This form is one of many signals that the VA COVID-19 Maker Challenge is not really a “maker” challenge. Makers are generally not defined by job titles, degrees and other forms of status. They are instead defined by enthusiasm—and most importantly, the projects they develop, which demonstrate their competencies.
If you want to gather expert designers and engineers, the best and brightest, or all the Aspen or TED fellows in the world, fine. Just don’t call it a maker challenge. If you want professionals with long, impressive resumes, go on LinkedIn and find them. You’ll have to hire them as consultants because they won’t volunteer to be part of your challenge.
Note, however, whom you are excluding through this application process. I wonder if this application process would exclude Jeff Solin, a Chicago high school computer science teacher with no design or engineering experience who developed a face-shield made entirely from a single piece of plastic. Then again Jeff didn’t need an organization to issue a challenge. He found the challenge in his own community and responded.
Checking the Results
What I’d love to see is a review of the results of these challenges with some analysis. The budgets for challenges seldom are reported but it would be good to know how much money was spent on generating the result. One might evaluate whether the results were worth it.
Also, it would be good if organizations held themselves accountable after the event, so that the resulting projects indeed are actually developed. Otherwise, this is not any better than an academic exercise.
The Global Hack, which generally seemed like a better program than most, took place earlier this month:
As we are still tallying up the numbers and recovering from 48 hours of non-stop hackathon, we can already say that the world did come together. Over 12k participants from 100+ countries worked on 500 life-changing projects.
The Overall Winner was SunCraft from a Berlin-based solar startup. The project uses a portable solar panel to power a UV-light box for disinfecting hands. There is a YouTube video of the SunCraft project here. It’s not clear how open it is, although there’s little that’s original in its design or execution. It’s a nice mashup of two different technologies. It could be useful in developing countries, but only if it can be freely produced and operated in local communities. The big question with all challenges is — what is the actual downstream impact of the event? Generating innovative ideas is not enough, not now, especially if they become orphaned after the event.
Do projects and prototypes actually get implemented? Do they survive the event? Is there any support for ongoing development, production and distribution of the resulting products or services? Do they flow into a network that can support them?
This is what is happening in the maker community, and it is much different than a hackathon or design challenge in response to COVID-19 The network of the maker community turns ideas into open solutions that are spread widely to solve real problems locally.
Note: If you have been a recent participant in one of design challenges or hackathons, I’d like to hear from you about your experience. (email@example.com)
Do Something Useful Instead
Plan C efforts of self-organizing groups of makers are rising to the very real challenges of their local communities. These collaborative efforts are happening openly without any of the usual incentives needed — no prizes or medals. Makers are responding to a call to civic action and service. They are doing what they can, and as Michael Wright replied on my Facebook post, “not because they were told to, or that they would be rewarded — but because they could, and it’s the right thing to do.” That’s hard for some people to truly understand. So are efforts that aren’t centrally directed by a single organization.
These decentralized efforts are producing real innovation at a rapid pace. Look at the projects on Make:’s BIG LIST of projects you can build at home, which features openly shared projects with instructions for producing them. Robert Read’s group is tracking Open Source Ventilator projects. Visit the Open Source Medical Supplies (OSMS) website and learn how to get involved. All of the maker projects are iterating based on feedback from users in the health care community and from producers in the maker community.
While design challenges and hackathons may be beneficial to participants, they are mostly not changing the way Plan A and Plan B organizations think about innovation or how they solve for problems in the community. Why do organizations keep doing these challenges, and circling the wagons with as many others as possible, as if they needed cover? Here’s my thought: If you are an organization and don’t know what to do, you throw out a design challenge, a competition, or organize a hackathon. It looks good. It’s good PR. It looks like you are creating change without really having to take responsibility for it. That’s mission accomplished.
I know that’s a deeply cynical view and I want to apologize for it as I say it. Yet, can we just say to these organizations that right now that in this crisis, it’s not good enough? Instead, do something useful.
Go look at what is happening in the maker community and it will overwhelm you — the number of projects, the levels of production, the networks and organizations being built in a few days time, with great urgency. What is underwhelming is the lack of funding and the lack of supplies for these grassroots efforts. It’s not a lack of ideas, action or innovation. In fact, innovations are happening in design, production and distribution as well as community organizing.
The real work is happening locally, where designs are modified, produced and distributed within local communities. The real challenge is having enough materials and supplies and then having the cash to buy them in large enough quantities to solve a growing problem. What’s really needed are ways to flash-fund good projects, not organizations and contests.
For organizations like the UN and VA, here are some other things you might do.
- Remove obstacles to the acceptance and use of open-source, community-produced solutions in your organizations, especially during times of crisis.
- Organize low-cost, rapid independent testing of solutions
- Help improve the process by providing open feedback from users in your system.
- Increase visibility of solutions that you’ve accepted.
- Try to coordinate, not control, the many innovative solutions that are developing in response to COVID-19.
Here’s a good example of what industry can do well. Dr. Michael A. Balazs of the MITRE Corporation sent an email to Make:, asking us to share a paper recently published by the N95 Working Group’s Healthcare Coalition:
Health Guidelines for 3D Printing Medical Devices and Personal Protective Equipment During COVID-19 Response
Dr. Balasz wrote that the paper aims “to support the wonderful work the maker community is doing.” The authors are very much aware of what the maker community is doing, and they want to be helpful. The paper makes accessible to more makers a lot of research that individuals may not know.
The NIH 3D Print Exchange is also providing a useful service in reviewing designs, although it is unfortunate that it is organized exclusively around the technology 3D printing instead of all COVID-19 solutions which might use other prototyping options such as laser cutters.
Another example, brought to my attention by Akiba of HackerFarms, a maker in Japan, is a N95 mask re-use protocol published by Nebraska Medicine, one of the hospitals that dealt with the ebola crisis, and the protocol deals with their N95 mask reuse. This work informed Akiba in his development and testing of open source decontamination units using UV-C light for disinfecting masks. Having this protocol open and public allowed him to follow a path that other researchers had laid down.
If you want to help grassroots efforts, build paths for them to follow and connect your ecosystem to open ecosystems where your organization is not at the center. Create interfaces for exchanging information. Just make it easier for self-organizing groups to help you. For instance, one group tells me that the VA is unable to accept donations of masks or face shields even though there is an acute need. Now, makers will find a way to get the masks inside the VA hospitals and some are able to get through but why make people bend the rules? Your challenge is to fix what’s broken in the system, so you can accept help.
One group, the IC3D Budmen Shield, was able to work successfully with a local VA hospital. Their design was reviewed by a national VA testing group and approved. How did that happen? I can’t learn from the VA if it was an exception, or if there’s an open process that others can follow.
If you want others to innovate and help you solve problems for you, provide specific information about the problems that you have. Choose problems based on the needs of real people you serve, not the system you have. Makers, like most people, want to help other people, not your organization or industry. Innovation can’t happen when the problems are invisible.
Learn from examples like, TOM Global, which has produced make-a-thons for many years in many countries. I was part of their 2015 event in San Francisco, which like many of them, focused on assistive technology. This make-a-thon wasn’t the typical pizza-party hackathon.
(TOM Global 2015, Tech Shop SF)
What TOM Global did in advance of the event was research problem sets provided by partners and they identified “need-knowers” — real people who have a real problem that needs solving. When the make-a-thon started, the need-knowers were part of the teams and the goal of the team was to solve that person’s problem — designing many possible solutions, iterating based on feedback and finding a solution that met with the approval of the need-knower. The make-a-thon facilitated the deep understanding of community needs, alongside the iterative prototyping of real-world solutions. It gave makers and others a valuable opportunity to learn together and make together while iterating over a problem that wasn’t their own.
I might have felt differently about the design challenges from the UN and VA if they had come prepared to identify “need-knowers” among frontline workers or first responders, if they were openly sharing requirements, if they showed support for existing efforts, many of which are only weeks old. Providing resources, coordinating among efforts and organizing testing to generate useful feedback would be better than launching a design challenge or hackathon. The most challenging challenge is right in front of us. The maker community is demonstrating a civic response that is a model for open innovation and public service and it is working to address the critical needs of our communities.