Want to Fix Your Country? Czech This Box - OZY | A Modern Media Company

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because it’s better to just do it than to wait for someone else to do it and charge you $18 million for doing it.

By Dan Peleschuk

Just a few weeks ago, Tomas Vondracek says, he was “almost nobody.”

That’s not strictly true. The 44-year-old Czech entrepreneur runs a number of successful businesses, including an information technology firm and an advertising agency. But he wasn’t anywhere near the national celebrity he is now after spearheading a makeshift hackathon to build an online toll-payment system for his country’s government — for free. Along the way, Vondracek tapped into a sense of collective responsibility among his fellow Czechs and saved officials roughly $18 million.

If you’re one of Vondracek’s peers in central or eastern Europe hoping to spark change in your own country, he’s got a straightforward message: “Do it.”

Amid the maelstrom of negative news about the dangers of misinformation and the exploitation of private data, it’s easy to lose sight of how technology might help.

It all started with an announcement in January by Transportation Minister Vladimír Kremlík that his agency would pay an outside contractor 400 million korunas ($18 million) to develop an online payment system for highway passes. According to Vondracek, that fit the usual bill of governments soliciting IT services: Officials give the supplier virtually free rein, turning a blind eye to costs.

“At the end of the day,” he says, “it makes every project more expensive compared to a normal price in the commercial sector.”

A frustrated Vondracek posted on LinkedIn that the job was simple enough for a bunch of programmers to tackle over a weekend. He expected nothing to come of it — until he got a call from a colleague telling him Prime Minister Andrej Babiš was a fan of the idea and wanted to discuss it with Vondracek.

Vondracek harnessed his organizational chops to organize a 48-hour session involving 150 volunteers from among the many hundreds who signed up. News of his plans made headlines across the Czech Republic, second only to the coronavirus outbreak. A media circus surrounded the headquarters of Vondracek’s IT firm, Actum Digital, where the hackathon took place.

Inside, masked programmers churned away, with team leaders offering stand-ups every three hours to provide updates on their work. Everyone involved was focused and driven by the change they knew they were making.

“I’ve never seen such concentrated programmers,” Vondracek says. “Some of them were even running through the office.” And it wasn’t just tech nerds who were inspired. Ordinary citizens turned out in support, providing meals to fuel them.

They reached their goal, and the program is in a test phase before it’s formally adopted by the government.

The project was driven by a sense of simplicity — the sort of digital people power that seemed unimaginable just a few years ago. Amid the maelstrom of negative news about the dangers of misinformation and the exploitation of private data, it’s easy to lose sight of how technology can help the greater cause.

That, says Vondracek, is why his experience is a lesson for countries battling with clunky bureaucracies but endowed with the power of a relatively savvy and tech-minded population. Both, incidentally, are major factors across former socialist countries.

“Don’t wait for the next elections,” Vondracek urges. “It’s part of democracy — it’s needed.”

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