5 Tips on Organzing a Hackathon

Veronica Ludwig, Chicago IdeaHack organizer and Brigade leader, reveals her five tips for executing an effective civic hackathon.

For the past six years I’ve been organizing fundraisers, networking events, unconferences and hackathons. We started the IdeaHack with the Chicago CfA Fellows for Code Across America. The Chicago IdeaHack is an event that brings together leaders from City Hall and non-profits with developers and designers to generate ideas on making Chicago a better city through civic application development.

My top five tips on building a brigade to organize a civic hackathon:

Target your audience.

When you think of civic minded people, most think of volunteers, non-profits, and charities. When you think of hackathons (if you know what a hackathon is), you think of developers and software engineers. To get all of these people to attend the same event can be a challenge. So the key is knowing where to find them. I usually scour the internet with keyword searches to find people who are already organizing events and meetups. These are the people who are just as passionate about these subjects and are the best people to help with initial organization and crowd sourcing. Example: Meetup.com is a great resource to locate groups of people who are already meeting and planning related events. My keyword searches for a civic hackathon list include: government, city, community, data, applications, coding, civic, open data, hackathon, hackers/ing, volunteers/ing…You get the idea.


Once I locate like-minded groups of people who are organizing similar events locally, I begin to create a list of the groups, the organizers, and the members. Then make contact immediately by reaching out and letting them know what you’re planning to do. Ask for their assistance and for their expertise. Meet with them, if possible, to learn more about what they are doing in their communities. By engaging with the right people, you’re building relationships and a foundation for change.


Everyone thinks and acts differently. Just because you’ve done something thousands of times, doesn’t always make you an expert. By brainstorming with other leaders you’re not only learning, you’re teaching at the same time. Schedule a few meetups with city officials, volunteers, developers, and designers to discuss making your city better. You are now creating a team of civic-minded professionals who all have the same goal in mind. Creating a brigade.

Plan your work. Work your plan.

There’s no point in creating new ideas if those ideas aren’t deployed into action. After creating an initial outline of your plan, ask each community leader to volunteer for a small task. Assigning tasks usually means you’ll have to babysit people. If someone volunteers, it comes from a genuine interest and self-motivation. When people have their own choice, it doesn’t always feel like work. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how smoothly things go when everyone is on the same page and working towards a common goal.

Drive momentum.

This is probably the most difficult thing to do and the most important thing to do. I’ve learned from experience that without the original motivator and the driving force (you), a brigade can dissolve 10 times faster than you put it together.

Here are some tips I’ve found useful:

  • Ask at minimun two other people to check in with you weekly. Hold yourself accountable by asking others to hold you accountable.
  • Schedule a regular check in every few weeks. It can be an email thread, a google hangout or a casual meeting at a coffee shop. Just a quick 15-20 minute update that happens regularly.
  • Recruit! Continue to do your research to find more community leaders that want to get involved.
  • Attend events and meetups that are led by your brigade members. Show your support and help them to help you.

Most importantly, remind yourself of the good feelings. Every time you met a new person that was just as excited about the brigade as you are. That’s a great feeling. Every time your city deploys a new civic app because your brigade brought people together. That’s an amazing feeling. Every time someone says “thank you for doing this” and reminds you how much your city needed it. That is unexplainably awesome.

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Dick Davies

My biggest misconception was that hackathons were just for coders. Then some of my buds sat on me, saying they were building complete projects, so they needed all disciplines, so SHOW UP!! Now I enjoy myself at hackathons and even pick up coding tips!


Nice advice thanks Abhi.

Here’s some thoughts from a series of events we’ve been running with Google in the UK called Interactivism (one on making the web more appealing and accessible to older people and one on encouraging youth employment).

Hope it’s helpful!