AT&T’s Hackathons Help Foster Digital Innovation

Providing solutions by tinkering with ideas and tech

The word hacker may have a negative connotation, but AT&T wants to show the world how it can lead to positive innovation.

"That's the old connotation," said Carlton Hill, vp of device operations and developer services for AT&T. "To hack on something doesn't mean that. It's to break it open, its to play with it and get a ton out of it."

For the last three years, the telecommunications company has calling on developers, marketers, designers and innovators to work together to create tech solutions for common problems. The participants usually have 24 hours to come up with an idea and prototype for each project, and a winner is awarded at each event. Most of the stops are themed around an issue, including the upcoming Houston, Texas event on Friday which will focus on apps to help the disabled.

AT&T has also worked with other organizations and brands, including a co-sponsored stop with Autism Speaks, which called on the participants to help create apps that would benefit the autism spectrum disorder community. The Houston event will be with Easter Seals of Houston.

"Our interest in hackathons in general is that we believe that collaboration is a big part of fostering innovation," Hill explained.

Since AT&T no longer dabbles in mobile app distribution, it can't offer to help monetize the best ideas that emerge from these events. However, it does highlight developers and platforms at its summit and through other promotional materials to provide publicity for the idea. (And, it helps that these hackers use and tweet about AT&T's platform and network so it also acts as advertising for its wares.)

But, more than just prize money and publicity for the winners, Hill points out that events have birthed some cutting-edge ideas. At an Aspire Hackathon in June 2012, a team made up of teachers and techies developed an app called Read With Me that digitally measures a child's reading skills. The app helps teachers prepare tests and can record how many words they read per minute as well as difficult words for the student, and more than 100,000 people have used it since it went on the market. 

An 11-year-old girl named Victoria Walker came up with the idea of Rode Dog—an app that notifies friends and family when a driver is texting and driving so they can send an audible alert to stop the behavior—at a September 2012 It Can Wait hackathon that focused on preventing the distracted driving behavior.

And, at the Tribeca Film Festival Hackathon in April that was themed around new ways to tell stories, the winning app Echoes allowed users to create stories about the art around them and share them with others in that city.

"What we're interested is how can the Web change storytelling," said Ingrid Kopp, the director of digital initiatives at Tribeca Film Institute.