Hackathons

Programming parties for a good cause: Hackathons create a space to develop new ideas.

These days not a weekend goes by without a score of hackathons taking place all over the world. Concept developers come together with programmers to guzzle energy drinks – and turn an idea into working software prototypes. It’s a process that lets people try out left-field ideas which in normal circumstances would never get a look in. And for civil society groups, hackathons offer a great opportunity to access the time and energy of software developers – which are otherwise either scarce or costly. These programming parties combine recreation with the drive to create something worthwhile.

Since the mid-2000s, hackatons (also known as hackfests or hackdays) have exploded in popularity, and the format is now used by agencies, software producers and large companies to generate ideas and capture them in code in a short space of time. The “hack” part refers to the rapid and playful way of writing small programmes; “-athon” plays on the endurance which is required when taking part – hackathons mostly last for 36 or 48 hours or even longer without interruption or sleep-breaks.

Often graphic designers, interface designers, concept designers, people from the business side, data experts, artists or activists are also present and help to produce a piece of functional digital innovation – a prototype website, an app, or another piece of software.

Hackathons are a great way of turning ideas into concrete products within a short space of time. The format has already produced a long list of innovations, making them particularly interesting for investors or funders. They get a new raft of ideas presented to them, and have an idea from the first prototype whether the idea or product is likely to actually work. They also see how programmers and concept designers work together in teams and can identify talent.

Research and concept development at bargain price

For companies, hackathons are a cost-effective innovation format. Google and Facebook, for instance, regularly hold internal hackdays to optimise existing products and come up with new ones. Facebook’s Like-Button and Timeline both came out of hackathons. And an increasing number of companies are also sponsoring external, open hackathons – in order to cultivate not only ideas and talent, but also their own image as an innovation-leader and attractive employer.

Hackathons vary in their format and focus. Some are around a particular topic, or concentrate on a particular programming language such as Drupal, Java Script or Ruby on Rails. Some might have only a dozen participants, others are large events with over 500 people. There are also decentralised hackathons, spread across many cities (like the Global Foursquare Hackathon). And even more recently, as people have become increasingly concerned about their privacy online, there are a growing number of “cryptoparties” where people can learn and develop encryption techniques.

How it works

Hackathons are defined by their collaborative character; typically you have interdisciplinary teams working together on a topic. The organisation style is informal and result-oriented. Many participants work through the night or snatch just a few hours sleep on-site – on or under a desk.

Most hackathons follow a fairly standardised format:

To begin with the social organisation gives and introduction to the topic and the particular challenges.

Then participants brainstorm ideas and solutions which they want to work on.

Following this pitch-phase, people organise themselves into teams, making sure each team has a good mix of concept architects, programmers and perhaps other experts.

This is when the real work begins. The original idea is fine-tuned, a concept is produced, a user-journey is drawn up and perhaps a click-dummy prototype is built. This can be tested with the help of other participants or passers-by on the street. Meanwhile, graphic designers are busy drafting visual elements such as logos, and the developers begin to code.

On the last day of the hackathon, the completed tools and prototypes are presented, either informally to the other participants or to an expert jury. Many hackathons give awards and prize money for the best results.

Hacking for good

Since the end of the 2000s we’ve also started to see hackathons in the social sector. Activists, NGOs or public institutions provide the impetus. They present challenges from their work and then collaborate with the assembled programmers and other experts in developing solutions. Topics range from disaster relief (see CrisisCommons) to water pollution, from trafficking of children to government transparency. Donation-apps and tools for managing a workforce of volunteers are also built. And some hackathons target a particular demographic group, such as young people or women (see Berlin Geekettes).

What do the participants get out of it?

Taking part in a hackthon is either free of charge or costs only a small fee to cover costs of meals etc. Hackathons are a part of the informal and collaborative culture of programmers and they attract a colourful mix of participants. They’re keen to network, to meet like-minded people and to test out and improve their technical or creative skills. Some simply want to spend their weekend doing something productive, others have the very clear motivation to dream up and build technological solutions for the problems facing their organisation.

Since the most important resource of a hackathon is the motivation of its participants, it can potentially be organised extremely cheaply. Anybody who can provide a suitable space, a stable internet connection and some food and drink can stage a hackathon. Event platforms like MeetUp or Eventbrite allow them to recruit and coordinate participants online. Many hackathons are sponsored by companies like Intel, Microsoft or Edelman. The cost of hackathons (not counting prize money) varies between 5,000 – 40,000 US-dollars.

Companies also use hackathons to present their own products during breaks, which ideally the programmers will combine into their hacking. So a hackathon-for-good means tools and software developed for mainly commercial use is used in a social context. Through hackathons companies can also offer employees an attractive format to develop their ideas. Even with corporate-sponsored hackathons, the rights to whatever is produced normally remain with the individual teams, and only rarely are transferred to the company.

Apps for citizen journalists, NGOs and governments

After the initial wave of informal hackathons, organisations have sprung up both in the for-profit world (e.g. Angelhack) as well as the non-profit sector which specialise in organising hackathons. Social Coding for Good is an amalgamation of various tech NGOs and media projects, including Ushahidi, the Wikimedia Foundation and the Guardian Project. It has recently been responsible for the development of apps like Orbot and Obscuracam at hackathons. Orbot extends the anonymising functions of Tor to mobile phones, whilst Obscuracam allows citizen journalists under repressive regimes to furnish recordings from their phones with additional information or to pixelate the faces of endangered informants. SecondMuse is another experienced organiser of hackathons worldwide, including Random Hacks of Kindness and National Days of Civic Hacking.

The US-American NGO Datakind runs hackathons with partners from the philanthropic sector with a focus on data analysis rather than software development. At one event they teamed up with the organisation DC Action for Kids, which focuses on the welfare of children in the Washington D.C. area. People from the NGO joined forces with developers, data experts and graphic designers. Together they developed tools with which they could analyse and visualise large amounts of data previously locked in PDF format. The hackathon weekend just served as the starting point for a far-reaching collaboration between Datakind and DC Action, which has produced interactive maps of the city, allowing activists to identify new insights and correlations.

Since 2009 Code for America has been bringing the development community together with state institutions in the USA – either in the form of scholarships for programmers to apply their skills in a public sector role, or through hackathons such as Hack for Change. Programmers unite with representatives of town or district authorities to find ways of using technology that make political processes and public services more transparent, participative and efficient. For example, Open 331 allows the the concerns of citizens to be collected and coordinated on a national level, whilst Where's My Schoolbus? lets schoolchildren and their parents in Boston check whether the bus is running on time.

An abundance of political transparency apps are developed through hackathons run by the Sunlight Foundation. The development of open government tools is not restricted to the USA, however. In 2013 the EU ran its first hackathon in Brussels, sponsored by Google and Skype, where 54 programmers from 19 countries built transparency tools. Social sector hackathons are booming everywhere where a strong tech community meets with socially engaged organisations, from India to Kenya, from Ghana to South America.

Conclusion

If you want to have fun with ideas for digital products, then a hackathon is a great idea. Even if you don’t have much space or money, you can still organise a weekend like this. Since people from different disciplines work together on solutions, at the very least, you're guaranteed to find some inspiration. Sometimes a market-ready product even comes out of it. But the most important thing is that hackathons liberate ideas from people’s heads, and makes the ideas tangible. During the tinkering, the hackers can make much more hands-on decisions about what works, and what needs to be improved. In this way, hackathons are a playground in which the most astounding plants can sometimes sprout.