We have had questions on this forum about taking part in hackathons, and first-timers sometimes prompt me about their doubts. Bridging the gap between people who go to hackathons regularly, and those who never heard of them before, is a hugely important task for the organizers. This ‘README’ post is an attempt in this direction which hopefully some readers may find helpful.
At events like Hack for Ageing Well (a 2016 event for which this post was originally written) and the Make.Opendata.ch series, we aim to adhere to the guidelines of Opendata.ch hackathons. We also run the events on our own platform, Dribdat, which you are welcome to try.
A typical event of this type goes through roughly five stages:
All artworks below by gign-3208. An appreciation of ponies is commonplace, but not required at hackathons.
First, you get introduced to the topics of the hackathon, and proposed exciting challenges by the organisers and a few “challengers” they have invited.
Second, you decide which of the ideas/challenges presented interests you most, and form a group together with other people interested in the same.
In the third stage, you explore resources that are recommended as a starting point, brainstorm with your team what solutions or directions would be exciting and achievable. If you get lost or run out of ideas, the coaches and challengers will be able to assist you. There is no such thing as a stupid question at a hackathon.
Next, you and your team focus on elaborating your ideas in any suitable form – whether that is researching, writing, making drawings or prototypes. In this you will be taking the first steps towards implementing your project. This key step should take up most of the two days.
In the last sprint, we spend time documenting our findings and sharing the results of all groups together: by taking turns presenting our projects. The coaches, public and participants will contribute feedback and (sometimes) vote for their favorites and award prizes. Then we clean up, and go home.
Going the distance
What I believe makes a difference at civic hacking events like make.opendata.ch, is that we give preferential treatment to sources of open data (like the data resources listed on our wiki), try to mostly use open source tools (ideal for quickly getting started with in a team), and document our results openly for others to reuse and build upon (e.g. on our project wiki, which is under a Creative Commons license).
If you would like to read some more background, there are thousands of blog posts about hackathons, among them my own humble contributions, or this enthusiastic Huffington Post article by a newcomer who clearly gets the ROI of hackathons.
Main thing is: don’t worry! If you have never run in a hackathon before, you will have no prior expectations – and nothing holding you back from injecting your own interests and styles into it. The hackathon is a joint experience that is 99% based on the energy and motivation that participants bring into it.
Just like a marathon, everyone can do it. Kids, seniors, there are shorter and longer tracks to fit every ability. Training has its place, which is why I’m writing this to you now two weeks ahead of the event, to get you thinking ahead. Show up, get involved, and you’ll do fine!
Photo by M. Schwendener at #GLAMhack16 – CC BY-SA 4.0
Our participants have also asked about what to bring along. My answer: it depends on what you want to try and accomplish. A web developer might want to have all the preferred tools ready to go, so as not to lose time with setup.
A designer might bring their favorite coloured pencils, sketchpads and prototyping or visualization tools (see here for some recommendations of the latter from our friends at IXT). If you’re into data (like me), you could download and look through a couple of datasets (example given) that you think might be relevant ahead of time, and bring an easy to use and versatile data analysis tool (see here for a list from our community). Hardware hackers typically bring a box of circuits and spare parts.
If you ask me, a hackathon is about getting out of the everyday churn, trying something new, learning things and meeting people – so bring an open mind and you will discover tools, ideas, languages, and approaches that you will want to try. It’s our job to ensure enough bandwidth for you to download whatever software or data you need on the spot!
In a similar vein, bring your own experience and expertise, be willing to share it … and reap the rewards that come with teaching and motivating a fellow human being!
Looking forward to hack with you soon!