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Geeks Gather for India's First Government Sponsored Hackathon

BY Jessica McKenzie | Monday, April 8 2013

Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Deputy Chairman of the India Planning Commission, opening the hackathon (image: Flickr/Mcenley)

The Indian government held its first ever official hackathon on April 6 and 7. The event, which took place at 10 educational institutions across the country, was organized to communicate the 12th five-year-plan, India's strategic and economic plan, to the public. More than 1,900 participants collaborated on apps and infographics, tackling problems such as healthcare opportunities and the difficulties faced by farmers.

The hackathon was organized by the Planning Commission, the government organization known for the “ponderous” five-year-plans that have determined the Indian government agenda since 1951. The hackathon is part of the Planning Commission's attempt to take a more “consultative approach” to the 12th five-year-plan, which is still in draft form.

The BBC covered the event and featured three app ideas that came out of the 32-hour hackathon. One android app, called Medi-history, uses the UID number unique to all Indian citizens to centralize medical records for use with different doctors. A web developer from Delhi created an interactive map which plots three separate data sets: on women and family health (which includes statistics such as literacy rates and fertility rates), health center shortfalls, and birth & death rates. A group of students created an app that would allow farmers to take a picture of damaged or diseased crops and to send it to the government for advice (in the current system the farmer must describe the problem over the phone). Participants could win up to Rs 25,000, or about US $450, for their projects.

Some expressed skepticism in the purpose and efficacy of the hackathon. Aneesh Dogra traveledfrom Chandigarh to participate at IIT, Delhi, and told The Times of India that he wasn’t very impressed with what he saw. "It isn't clear whether they want utility-based apps or something to just spread awareness. In such a case, we may just end up with four basic slides and call it an app."

Although the hackathon is a gesture of governmental openness and accessibility, as techPresident has reported in the past, the government has been accused of limiting its high-tech outreach to the country's urban elites, thus excluding the vast majority of Indian citizens. And even if the sentiment is sincere, what good is a photo app for struggling farmers when, as of December 2012, only 4 percent of Indians owned smartphones?

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.