A Collaborative Codefest

How is it possible to create multimedia programs, mobile apps and other software in a very short space of time? One interesting way to succeed is a hackathon. The term is a combination of the words ‘hack’ meaning tool or solution, and ‘marathon’. It refers to an event at which programmers, graphic designers, interface designers and other ‘co-workers’ sit down together in order to focus on work and be creative. Hackathons typically last between a day and a week. They usually have a specific focus, such as creating usable software for educational purposes or the social good.

In this context, the word ‘hacker’ doesn’t describe a criminal who infects systems and breaches networks, but instead describes someone who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and creating new applications within a group of like-minded and open-minded people.

Cross-functional teams of coders, designers and business developers group up to brainstorm and then realise the most promising idea in just a few days. Hackathons are competitions between several teams. Once the hackathon itself is over, the teams present their solutions in front of a jury that decides which team has done the best job – and therefore wins the hackathon.

In 2011, more than 200 hackathons were held in the United States. As a result, a new wave of innovations and software appeared. There are currently no statistics on the number of hackathons worldwide, but it is estimated that in London alone there is on average one hackathon a week.

Hackathon © GIZ Liya Dejene
© GIZ Liya Dejene

The time and money required to develop new software is falling dramatically. Coders add core features of apps simply by copying and pasting snippets of code from previous projects. By gluing code together in this way, programmers can focus on new functionality to achieve their main target – putting a new idea into practice in a very short time.

However, the conventional tech world is not the only sector in which hackathons have proved to be a useful format. Hackathons can vary depending on the desired end product and also the time spent and the type and number of participants. There are hackathons on educational subjects, games, the social good, clean energy and water pollution as well as hackathons for teens, college students and for women only. In fact, even Facebook’s Like button started as a hackathon project.

Hackathons have emerged as an efficient way of innovating and networking, a place for learning while creating new software. Their success shows that it’s worth taking a closer look at them.