TASHKENT -- Uzbekistan is relying on talented youth to help bolster its cyber-security.
On May 18, the government announced its annual software contest for youth, called Best Soft Challenge (BSC). "Soft" refers to software.
The contest has three stages and ends September 19, according to UzDaily.uz. It has taken place every year since 2013.
By holding the BSC every year, the government seeks to encourage youth to write software and to build up the software industry in general.
Tashkent is seeking to strengthen the country's IT capacities in two other ways. For the first time, it is holding the Cyber Security Challenge for programmers to showcase their ability at closing up IT security loopholes, such as those exploited by terrorists.
Meanwhile, the government recently passed laws to make it easier to sell software and to provide tax benefits to software developers.
"IT comprised just 2% of the Uzbekistani GDP in 2015," Dilshod Khairullayev, a spokesman for the Development of Information Technologies and Communications Ministry, told Central Asia Online. "But world experience shows that developing IT is a fantastic way ... to make a great leap forward."
"We're making it possible for programmers to develop in a competitive environment," he added.
Rules of the game
The government and various sponsors provide funds for prizes in the BSC.
"Uzbekistani citizens under 25 are eligible to compete," Sherzod Mirkamalov, a spokesman for the Tashkent-based Kamolot youth NGO, told Central Asia Online. "They can either be independent software developers or teams of four or fewer members."
"We focus on high-school, trade-school and college students," he said.
Kamolot is one of the contest's organisers.
The BSC accepts applications until August 26 and will give out awards, including cash sums, September 19, Mirkamalov said.
The young programmers are competing in three categories: e-commerce, education and culture, and computer games, he said.
"We accept programmes for PCs and mobile apps," Mirkamalov explained. "We will judge them on relevance and originality, their interface and other criteria."
Excitement among young competitors
Uzbek programmers look forward to the contest as a way to distinguish themselves.
"It's very important for your town or nation to have a community of colleagues for self-development to happen," Tashkent University of Information Technologies student Andrei Ilyasov told Central Asia Online. "You see what they're doing and try to outdo them."
"Major software firms often hold these events in other countries," he continued. "We don't have such businesses yet. It's great that the state is stepping in."
"Last year, young programmers submitted more than 200 programmes to the contest," Mirkamalov said.
Prizes included various apps and games, and each winner in the three categories of the BSC receives a 10m UZS (US $3,400) pize, Mirkamalov said.
Training youth is essential because Uzbekistan lacks a plentiful younger generation of programmers, Uzbekistani software writers say.
"The number of young specialists ... doesn't come close to meeting demand," Ozod Khakimov, a programmer from Tashkent, told Central Asia Online. "Programmers need to teach themselves daily."
Meanwhile, Uzbek programmers have another contest to test their skills.
The Cyber Security Challenge is taking place for the first time this year. Its goal is to encourage programmers to close up the loopholes that terrorists exploit, whether they seek to recruit youths, make threats or hack and destroy sites.
"The new competition stopped accepting applications June 15," Khairullayev said. "It will make [competitors] solve tasks as part of a cyber-quest, compete in a cyber-tournament and take master classes in a boot camp."
"The winner who prepares the best project will receive a prize of 30m UZS [US $10,000]," he said. "Such competitions should raise youth interest in cyber-security."
The contest will identify its winners in September, according to cyber.uz.
Economic incentives too
Tashkent has been reforming laws to remove economic hurdles to developing the software industry.
"Programmers have had the legal right to sell their products online since January 26, 2015," Khairullayev said.
"All they have to do is enter data about their transactions on the Single Portal of Inter-active State Services," he continued. "They used to have to fill out a separate export contract for every transaction."
"Programmers are exempt from all taxes and customs duties between 2013 and 2017," he added. "They can get a two-year extension of that benefit if their companies earn more than 50% of their income from selling software."
Such policies are resulting in the sought-after growth.
"In 2010, Uzbekistan had 210 software firms," Khairullayev said. "Today we have 334 of them."
"We already have 1,716 [domestically written] programmes listed on the [national software catalogue]," he said. "We expect that number to grow."