Not Another Hackathon?

“Not another hackathon!” Heard this lately? We have and we’d like to amend it: “Not another MEDIOCRE hackathon.”

As hack events become more popular across the country (and ubiquitous in places with thriving tech communities) organizing one can seem daunting. But if you do it right, a productive hackathon can act as a catalyst for some pretty incredible projects. We were reminded of this when we threw one for our 2013 fellows one Saturday as a part of their training this January.

The format was pretty standard for a one-day event: 9:00 a.m. breakfast; 10:00 a.m. start with pitches, team formation, and ideation for the first hour and a half. Following this, teams were heads down hacking with a break for lunch and another for a three-legged race mid afternoon. We had presentations and prizes at 5:00 p.m. and wrapped by 6:00 p.m.

Some Fun Things They Built in Seven Hours


Team Streetmix created a web-based solution for building street sections, a common engagement activity used by planners in community meetings. Currently, many planners conduct this activity by asking community members to arrange paper cutouts of different street components (like bikes lanes or sidewalks) into their desired street structure.

Streetmix allows planners to reach a wider audience than they could at meetings alone. It also allows community members to share and edit each other’s creations. One of the goals of Streetmix is to be part of the national conversation around Complete Streets.

You can read more about it in this The Atlantic Cities article.


Smart Stops was first made for the Urban Prototyping festival. At this hackathon, Team Smart Stops made version 2: rebuilt in Node.js and featuring a cleaner Heroku set up. Every bus stop in San Francisco is now a smart bus stop.

Text any question you have to 415-697-3287 and get a local answer back.


Team cfa_api project built off work started by Dave Guarino. The team focused on adding the 2013 Fellows’ Twitter and GitHub usernames. By having those usernames, Twitter and/or GitHub APIs can be used to create visualizations around the Fellows’ activities on those networks.


Team Interactive Mapping worked on building an interactive map of San Francisco and Oakland city services. They spent their day on data processing and working on code that will allow the map to easily scale as new data is added. They published a basic map of schools in San Francisco.


Using, this team made Voxel City. It takes map tiles from and turns them into voxels so that you can do things like report pot holes on Market Street.

Some Fun Things We Learned in Seven Hours

Ever the analytics nerds, we pulled together some soft data from our event to help you optimize your next hackathon:


Instead of using the time following project pitches for informal team formation, we had a 15 minute “speed-dating” session where individuals rotated from project to project to find their ideal match. It was fun and helped minimize the number of people without a project after the time for team formation was up.


Providing structure without strangling innovation–the organizer’s dilema. At this hackathon, we were a bit too light on our guidance around what kind of projects participants could work on. Suggestion for next time: start an email thread or forum a few days in advance where participants can start seeding ideas for projects they want to work on.


“Why didn’t we…” Ever think this midway through an event? Halfway through this hackathon, we thought: “Why didn’t we give away door prizes?! It’s Saturday. It’s a three day weekend. We started early.” First five through the door get a latte or a Hawaiian shirt or a puppy. Next time!


Our feedback from attendees featured some creative suggestions. Our favorite recommendation for a more productive afternoon: a coffee cart concierge service. Diva coders!

Check out more photos from the day.

Questions? Comments? Hit us up at @codeforamerica.

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