10 Considerations For Planning Your Next Hackathon

Hacks are novel creations or solutions to problems and the purpose of a Hackathon is to create them.  The word “Hackathon” comes from combining the words ‘Hack’ and ‘Marathon’, and implies a long sprint to create something useful in a single event. 

Image: Freecodecamp.org

They can be transformative and expose new ways of solving problems or analyzing data – for developers, makers, and innovators, there’s no better way to set your creative side free than a hackathon! For companies seeking clever ways to use their solutions or for Government agencies looking to put their OpenData into the hands of citizens a hackathon is a great solution.

Yes indeed, with the plethora of opendata being made available to the masses there’s no better way to get started than to hack. You know, a group of geeks gets together over pizza, beer and redbull, downloads a ton of data, cracks open their favorite SDKs, APIs and developer tools and hopefully finishes the day with an app or at least the start of a fun project to continue on with.

The Hacker Ethic originates from the early days of the computer revolution.  To call someone a “Hacker” is viewed as a compliment.  The Hacker Ethic centers around the principle that information should be free [as in speech], and that people should have the freedom to repurpose everyday devices in new and unexpected ways.

And so, as you think about planning a hackathon, the following are 10 considerations to keep in mind:

  1. What’s the purpose? Before you gather you should decide what the purpose of the event is. Are you meeting up simply to foster some community building or is the purpose to hopefully launch a couple of cool apps at the end of the day?
  2. Picking a Date – Always a challenge for event planners, hackathons are often held on the week-end, preferably Saturday so as to not interrupt people’s work week. Try picking a date where there’s no other big local events taking place and always shy away from holiday week-ends. Summer is busy and not really the best choice either so try and stick to the dark part of the year when folks are looking for fun things to do. Be sure to announce the date well in advance and keep hyping it
  3. Find a venue that works – I often see hackathons planned in spots like restaurants and bars, however, in my mind these are simply too distracting and not very suitable. Ideally, an office space donated by a local startup will serve you best. Find an environment conducive to productivity and innovation. An office will likely also have all the required components like Internet, desks, chairs, coffee and a beer fridge! Offices may be tough to access on week-ends so figure out this logistical problem well ahead of time.
  4. Set a Schedule – Hackathons are often pretty laid-back, however, don’t be too laid back! Expect a variety of folks to show up, many may be first timers and not know what to expect. Plan a schedule, go over it and try to stick to it. I enjoy some social activities as well so be sure to start off with some form of introduction time and perhaps let people briefly describe what they want to do as this will likely encourage people to chat and team up – encourage team efforts!
  5. Compete – there’s nothing wrong with a little friendly competition to encourage people. Offering up a couple of fun prizes to reward some effort can’t hurt and may spur people to really dig in – you might hit up a local sponsor for a prize.
  6. Invite Local Business – The event can be 100% developer driven, however, to make it really fun I’d suggest getting local government and business involved. Invite some people from agencies and encourage them to bring or describe some opendata to work with – a local transit IT person would be a cool attendee.
  7. Consider a Sponsor – you don’t have to have sponsors, however, I can guarantee that you could easily find a tech firm or two to sponsor the event and provide a venue, food and drink, and some form of support. Make sure your sponsors are relevant to your hackathon theme
  8. Encourage Diversity – Hackathons are social and are essentially for hands-on brainstorming. If attendees are mostly all from the same circle then others will feel like outsiders. Get a nice mix of attendees from all walks of life and all ages.
  9. Have Experts on hand – A hackathon is also about learning. Encourage people to mingle and ask questions. Having a couple of experts on hand will help things to go smooth. If coding and hacking is to be a focus then having a coder, a Geotech guru, and an IT savvy person walking around to encourage and help people will help things to go smoothly
  10. Set a theme – I’ve been to “open” hackathons where anything goes. this is all fine and good, however, I found that there were simply so many cool ideas bouncing around. Setting a focus and purpose will make things move along smoother. Having a set theme like “hacking for the cycling community” will provide focus. this way you can encourage attendees to create apps and project for the sole purpose of helping the cycling community. Provide several datasets that are specifically for this group (like bike trails data, transit data, coffee shop POIs etc…). businesses might also consider the idea of having their own, corporate hackathon. This is great for team building and you never know, you may just come up with your next great business plan!

Finally, have fun! At the end of the event be sure to plan a show and tell and consider a follow-up event. Be sure to also share and promote the results of your event and thank all your attendees and sponsors repeatedly ;0)

See Also:

For more info see this awesome How to Guide 

Techcrunch, hackathon planning tips

The Hackathon Guide

OpenData via the ArcGIS Hub

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