Hacking the Hackathon

At Code for America, we’re no stranger to the hackathon and its event cousins: iconathons, make-a-thons, write-a-thons, and more. In 2013 alone, we hosted two hackathons at our San Francisco office, and partnered on events in 12 cities—and it’s only March. With so much experience, it’s easy to prep for new events by focusing solely on optimizing what we’ve done in the past. Too often, we don’t take enough time to examine the purpose of the hackathon in the broader scope.

We were reminded of this recently when a thread started on an internal listserve around the article “Saving the Hackathon.” As the conversation progressed, its contributors provided a rich and insightful examination of hackathons and prompted deeper analysis on the topic from Jake Porway and Alan Palazzolo.

We wanted to distill some parts of the conversation and share them with you to think about as you plan your next event.

Thoughtful Motives & Purpose

The key question is – does money invested in a hackathon-driven initiative end up with better results than a) simply contracting an app to a developer team; or b) holding an app contest with prizes? And how do you define “better”? (sustainability, users, additional investment, technical quality, amount of work done in a weekend?)

In my experience the answer is: possibly, depending on a number of factors. Do you have a specific app in mind? Is spontaneity more important than predictability? Do you have any plan for follow up? Do you have time to contextualize the hackathon in a larger set of issues?

It’s all a continual learning process, and expectation management is one of the most important parts of it all. Hackathons, like open source or open data, are not a magic fairie dust which fixes all civic problems.” —Jake Levitas, Research Director, Gray Area Foundation for the Arts

“I’m very pro-hackathon but, whether the intended outcome is a tech product or community engagement, I think it’s difficult to set realistic expectations when technologists are constantly held up as general-purpose saviours.” —Ben Sheldon, Engineer, OkCupid Labs & 2012 Code for America Fellow

It’s okay for hackathons to be about community building and learning something new, so long as you set the expectations up front…I often hear phrases like “the creativity of the tech community” whispered, or worse, advertised, to elevate the hacker community to a godly force that can come in and solve serious design issues in 48 hours without any prep work on the part of the host. It’s disheartening.” —Jake Porway, Founder and Executive Director, DataKind

Better Planning

We need to do a better job of drawing out the real problems from these fields and not just fall into knee-jerk app recipes that worked well in the past.” —Ean Schuessler, Co-founder, Brainfood

Start with a motive that is supportive of all participants; make space for facilitated sessions between subject matter experts and tech/design/ux creatives; state desired outcomes at the beginning (they don’t have to be about a piece of software); source and develop one to three challenges before the hackathon and open the floor for new pitches at the start.” —Kevin Curry, Brigade Program Director, Code for America

Incentives and Prizes

The incentivizing part can sometimes get in the way. Stressing them makes the hackathon a little more reality show and ego-driven and that can upset the dynamic of teams.” —Anna Bloom, Content Strategis, Hot Studio & 2011 Code for America Fellow

Incentivize sustainability in awards. Winner gets automatic spot in an incubator/accelerator; an advance to final round of a grant application process; contract for more work; shortlisted for RFP, etc.” —Kevin Curry, Brigade Program Director, Code for America

How to Support Sustainability

In our city, we are explicitly linking projects from one hackathon to the next, and many of the participants we see are regulars. They attend events often and use them as opportunities to build out their projects and network with others that might have ideas for improvement or who might be able to lend a hand. I see lots of projects that get better over the course of several hackathons, and that inspire others to join in and lend a hand, or start a project of their own.” —Mark Headd, Chief Data Officer, City of Philadelphia

Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.

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