What’s a hackathon?

Recently the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts hosted Summer of Smart (SoS)– a “three-month experiment in urban innovation,” organized around weekends where attendees prototyped applications, websites (and the occasional neighborhood game) focused on three different topics: Community Development + Public Art, Sustainability + Transportation + Energy, and “Public Health + Food + Nutrition.”

Billed as “a hackathon for everyone,” SoS reimagined hackathons as, in Dan Felton’s words, “the beginning of a partnership, not the end,” addressing issues with the sustainability and civic value of app contests. In “Four Ways Summer of Smart has reinvented civic hackathons,” the Gray Area Foundation’s Jake Levitas outlines SoS’s four organizing principles:

Hackathons should be diverse and inclusive.

Hackathons should build, and be built by, lasting partnerships.

Hackathons should build a community.

Hackathons should create sustainable, impactful projects.

The last three principles may follow from the first. Diversity leverages The Strength of Weak Ties (pdf) between social networks – building bridges between communities of hackers and non-hackers, and providing unique insights from outside the homogenized knowledge within hacker communities to produce meaningful projects.

So how did the SoS experiment go? We could look at the hackathon as a system under development, and ask the hackathon’s “users”/participants about their experiences.

I talked to Jordan (pseudonym), who participated in the Public Health + Food + Nutrition weekend after finding out about it from our mutual friend, a nurse and diabetes educator who heard about it from me. Jordan is one of those folks that SoS sought to be more inclusive of – not a technician, but rather someone with extensive insight, knowledge, and experience with the weekend’s topic. Jordan has a master’s degree in public health, and a passion for making wellness accessible to everyone.

Summer of Smart, Photo by Adriel Hampton CC BY

Jordan initially felt like an outsider at the SoS weekend, but became more comfortable as the weekend progressed:

I didn’t really know what a hackathon was, going in, but I didn’t really care whether I knew, whether I fully understood it, because I liked the topic that they chose so much. And I liked the idea of people coming together from different sectors and skill sets to work on projects based on a theme or a purpose.

I was sort of like an outsider because I’m not technologically savvy… However in the end, I noticed that the folks that actually stayed and seemed to see it through to the end weren’t all the tech people — almost like half-and-half, tech savvy people and non.  So I was happy to see that, because going in it felt like, ‘Oh wow, this is a room full of computer geek type people, and is there a role for me, or a place for me, inside of that?’

Jordan’s role included focusing the project on public health and sharing knowledge of the health care system. As Levitas observes, “user research is effectively embedded into the fabric of each project from the start” when people with hands-on experience like Jordan are part of a team. Jordan contrasted “a public health angle” with the perspectives of some more technologically-oriented participants.

I had a little bit more knowledge of the medical system… things like what words to use so that people with, for example, less education or physical activity literacy might understand what it is. Things like what doctors would need to be able to really use this tool, what things would make it an encumbrance… [Someone] came up who wasn’t a part of our team and [said] maybe it should be about, if you want to get ripped abs, where would you go? It was a great idea, but it wasn’t a public health angle. … It wouldn’t apply necessarily to a population who, if anything, they don’t want to be identified as somebody with ripped abs. I want those people to be healthy too…

There was a lot of encouragement to make games at this event, like “Make a game that people can use on their phone. That’ll help support them in being active. ” Then you’re really only making something that’s relevant to a population of people who have these phones. That wasn’t where I was coming from.

Overall, the SoS experiment seems to have been a success for Jordan, who described the event in glowing terms.

It was the perfect venue for learning from others about things you don’t already know about because there’s so many people with different skill sets. And then also having what you can contribute celebrated, because they don’t have that skill.

Jordan expects the team’s project to continue past the initial hackathon phase – in part, because of Jordan’s connections to the health care community.

It seems like what develops is something pretty real. Something you can really bite into, or do something with after — which I appreciated a lot. It didn’t feel like an exercise…

I did share the product from the website and the PowerPoint presentation that we created with a bunch of people in my world, my community – and got a lot of reflection back that it made a lot of sense, and there might even be ways to continue the project where there was some kind of revenue stream so that we could pay for the work to get done that needed to get done. Or if not that, people are encouraging us to think about whether there might be a grant we could get to do it.

Jordan did see room for improvement with the hackathon’s design in terms of outreach. The Gray Area Foundation did “far more outreach and collaboration” than many hackathons do, and outreach can be limited by resources, but Jordan wished that more colleagues in public health had participated, noting that most of them weren’t aware of the event.

They didn’t know. I found out about it a few days before. I did put the word out, but it was too last minute I think for most people…It was a really great opportunity for anybody who cares about those issues… It was through me that the student body got informed.

I said ‘I’m going to be involved in this event’ and then I just sent them information that the event gives out. So I didn’t reinvent it in my own language, because I hadn’t been to one. I could have been misleading people as to what it was gonna be.

SoS asked people to submit project ideas prior to the event on Twitter, using the hash tag “sosidea”. Jordan had mixed feedback about the idea submission process.

I really enjoyed having to distill my thoughts down to a few words. I thought that was a very useful and exciting option, and sort of nudge that they created.


I was disappointed by how few ideas there were. It felt as though, that stage of the process, people weren’t necessarily fully participating… I think that partly has to do with who they are, like whether they would tweet, whether they want to be on Twitter.

Jordan thought some people would be uncomfortable using Twitter.

I had never even been on Twitter, so I didn’t understand how it worked… I’m putting my idea out there not just to this select group who’s involved with this project, but like I have no idea where that idea is and who might be exposed to it. It’s confusing to me… It would be intimidating, or it might be almost aesthetically unattractive to [Jordan’s colleagues]… They would have to know to go to Twitter and learn how to sign up, and then go back to the website and see examples of what people had done.

Twitter wasn’t all bad though. In addition to appreciating the 140-character limit, Jordan valued Twitter’s networking opportunities.

One cool thing for me was some people who were following the event from abroad, from like Canada or different parts of the US, because they care about the issue or because they knew about the hackathon, now I’m networked with them because of Twitter. And that’s really valuable.

picture of cans arranged to spell "Hack"

HACK, Photo by hackNY CC BY-SA

I asked what Jordan thought a hackathon was after having actually participated in one.

This is my analysis of what it was. It’s like a think tank, except instead of elite people being invited to it and all being right about what they think needs to happen and thinking they know better than the people around them, or being caught up in some sort of intellectual dialogue about possibilities but not actually doing anything, it was a bunch of non-elites. It was a bunch of people who have some free time on the weekend… And to me it was what gave it its energy… We all had that as a priority in our lives.


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2 Comments on “What’s a hackathon?”

  1. Ashley Beldon
    October 12, 2011 at 4:14 am #

    Thanks for writing about this! I would like to know about more of these as they take place. How do participants like them? What works about them? What issues arise at them?

  2. October 13, 2011 at 2:28 am #

    One interesting thing to me about this interview was Jordan’s take on a hackathon as a gathering of non-elites. My impression has been that many people who organize and/or participate in hackathons think of themselves as relatively elite — but maybe I’m wrong about that?

    I wonder if/how the design of a hackathon, esp. maybe a civic hackathon, might be different depending on whether it’s oriented toward elite v. non-elite… or some combination or elite/non-elite.

    Maybe the first thing to figure out would be what “elite” v. “non-elite” means in the context of a hackathon. I wish I had asked Jordan this question directly (regretz: i haz a few*) — but Jordan links “non-elite” with
    – doing stuff (as opposed to talking without doing)
    – not invested in being “right about what needs to happen”
    – also maybe with volunteering one’s time to a cause?

    *Did you click on it? “I did it meow way” Ha! Maybe it’s just me.

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