$10K Contest To Solve A Problem Worth Millions
Written by Alex Armstrong   
Monday, 06 October 2014

VistaPrint is offering $10,000 for algorithms that help it solve its packing problems. Is this a fair challenge or just downright exploitative?


Have you ever received a collection of small items in an oversized box and been amused to find so much wasted space. Well if you are the company that has paid the carriage charge for a big box when a small one would have don the job your reaction would have been frustration and annoyance instead of a wry smile.

So if you are a company like VistaPrint, which manufactures and ships a range of customized items of differing sizes- from business cards to t-shirts, with mugs banners and rubber stamps included in the mix - looking for a crowd sourced solution by way of a competition seems like a good strategy. But if you are a developer who can come up with a good algorithmic solution it is likely to be much valuable than the prize money on offer - in this case just $10,000.

The Swiss based company VistaPrint announced its competition on its blog, Lifeinvistaprint. It seems a fairly standard algorithmic challenge. You are asked to write a command-line program in one of  C, C#, C++, Java, Perl, PHP, Python, Ruby, or Visual Basic.NET that accepts program input about N (between 1 and 100) products that are rectangular cuboids with dimensions being real numbers between 1 and 50 inclusive.

But I'm falling into the trap of giving the details of the challenge rather than discussing whether it oversteps the mark that separates posing an interesting problem from attempting to get innocent computer scientists to hand over their intellectual property on the cheap.

According to a one of the comments on the Programming subreddit:

Bin packing is a NP-complete problem, so yes, an optimal but efficient solution would be worth billions, along with the guaranteed Fields medal and Turing award.

The way the VistaPrint competition is worded they may be looking for something other than an optimal solution but even so the prize on offer seems exploitative - another comment suggests that companies that run high distribution centers with mixed product cartons are prepared to pay substantially more for annual licence whereas the small print of the VistaPrint competition rules state:

.... the participant grants Sponsor (and its affiliates and subsidiaries) a non-exclusive, worldwide, perpetual, irrevocable, royalty-free, transferable license to use participant’s concept and Entry for and in connection with its business.

Which suggests that simply by entering the competition you give VistaPrint at least a share in your algorithm.

It may be that this contest is no worse than others in the way it appears to be setting out to exploit naive developers. However this one appears to be worse than usual in that the problem is exceptionally difficult and the terms and conditions unusually agressive, making it more than usually apparent that competitions are about looking for valuable answers on the cheap.




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Last Updated ( Sunday, 05 October 2014 )