Hackathon Design Framework

Step by Step

Hackathons start by assembling the organizing team. The main organizer is the person who manages the whole process. There’s a technical expert who understands data concepts and the technologies involved. There’s a room manager who is responsible for the location, the equipment and who acts as the go-to person for participants during the event. At last but not least, you need a social media manager, who is responsible for spreading the word and increasing the impact before, during and after the event. Depending on the scale of the hackathon, co-workers can take on more than one area of responsibility or, if the workload is too heavy, it can be distributed across several team members. Let’s zoom in now and take a closer look at the individual tasks.

First of all, the aim of the hackathon must be very clear.

Why do you want to organize the event?

Is the software or the prototype your most important aim? Or do you want to create a network? Do you want to have a competitive hackathon or a cooperative hackathon? You should consider these fundamental questions before deciding on the structure, because it will give you some initial ideas for your roadmap.

The second question you should ask yourself is:

What kind of software should the participants build?

The end product may take many different forms. It could be a concept with a few snippets of code, an initial prototype or ideally a working application. Of course time is a very limiting factor, so don’t expect a bug-free product after a few hours. The goal of the hackathon might be quite general, such as to support the idea of open data. Or it could be very specific, such as to fix as many bugs as possible in a particular piece of software.

What is the legal background?

Who will own the property rights for the projects? Is it a Creative Commons project? If you would like to commodify the results, ensure the participants are aware of this and have signed a declaration of consent. If you think about this early on in the process, it will save you a lot of trouble.

When will it take place?

How much time will you have for the preparations? Is the hackathon part of another, bigger event? Both the hacking and the presentations will take time. However, time pressure is part of the success and giving participants too much time can be counterproductive. Select the right timeframe.

Where will the hackathron take place?

Don’t underestimate the influence of the architecture on the subconscious. The physical space that supports teamwork and creativity is a fundamental element of the hackathon experience. The location will have an impact on the creativity and well-being of your participants. Remember too that people might have to eat and sleep. It’s not unusual for participants to sleep at their workplace, but if the hackathon is longer than two or three days, you should organize proper accommodation. The hackathon might be supported by online meetings or virtual collaboration, but face-to-face conversations are crucial, especially in the brainstorming phase.

The next step is to think about your participants. Depending on the target that you want to achieve, you should decide

What kind of participants you invite and how many.

You could open up your event to everyone. Alternatively, you could restrict participation to people from a specific geographic region or community, or of a specific gender, age, background, profession, etc. Furthermore, you could permit closed teams, single individuals or a mixture of both to apply for and participate in the event. The main advantage of having preexisting teams is that they are more efficient and it speeds up the team-building phase. However, if you form new teams at the start of your hackathon, you will promote networking, diversity and creativity. New ideas will arise from new perspectives. The choice of participants will have a huge influence on the success of your hackathon, so make sure you don’t lose sight of your main objective when selecting participants.

Do you want to award prize money or physical prizes, have a follow-on project or simply reward the winning team with fame and glory? Depending on your choice and your budget, you may need suitable sponsors.

Moderating hackathons is another challenge. Sometimes it can be very effective to give your participants some input during the event. This will give them examples, know-how and more ideas. But avoid directing their thoughts in just one direction. Heads are round, so thoughts can change direction. If everything is too constrained, you will have a lack of creativity. Even if you don’t need to provide subject-specific input, good moderation is very important for time-keeping and motivation. Depending on the main target of your hackathon (e.g. if it is planned as a competitive event), you should also think about a

knowledgeable jury.

Hackathon © GIZ Liya Dejene
© GIZ Liya Dejene

Of course it is easier to recruit jury members from your organisation, but sometimes it is better and more objective to have external experts. It can be favourable to have a good mix of experts with different backgrounds. Alternatively, if the results are going to be very technical, you will need experts with a background in IT. Give the judges some weighted criteria beforehand to guarantee a fair and transparent decision.

The next point is documentation. It is useful to have someone who is dedicated simply to documenting the hackathon in detail. This documentation might take the form of pictures, videos, blogging, interviews, etc. Solid documentation is not only good for your internal organisational needs, it is also useful for external publicity and visibility.

Finally, there is the processing and the follow-up work for the hackathon. Was it a single event? Is it connected to other events or projects? What will happen with the results? Will the participants be part of future plans? If possible, try to minimize so-called abandonware. This is software that has been created during a hackathon, didn’t win a prize and is then just left behind. Of course, not every snippet of code will warrant further attention, but a lot of good ideas gather dust simply because there was a bad presentation and the jury didn’t like the project or didn’t get the point. Try to give your participants a second chance by putting the results online. You can also try to find some investors and venture capitalists to take a closer look at the results. And who knows, perhaps you will have more than just one winner of your hackathon.