February 7, 2014
Last weekend, ChallengePost Developer Evangelist Richard Murby had the opportunity to attend HackCon, a conference for college hackathon organizers. Here are his highlights.
The weekend was filled with incredible content and some very thought provoking discussions. There’s a lot for the hackathon community to reflect on and I eagerly await jumping into those conversations. However, I want to share some personal highlights and themes while fresh in my mind.
The health of hackathons is strong, very strong. During the later part of HackCon, the room joined in a lively discussion around “values” and how they’re reflected in the events which we design. The simple fact that the community is having this conversation reflects an incredible growth in sophistication. As hackathons continue to rapidly increase in size, volume, and subject matter, it’s critically important that the community takes time to consider why we’re throwing these events and what they stand for.
HackCon was devoted to college hackathons and these events are undoubtedly the leading lights in the hackathon movement. However, within the US college hackathon scene, there is remarkable heterogeneity — some events focus on learning (ADI DevFest), while others are stages for the most remarkable hackers to showcase their talent (PennApps). This diversity increases the health of the hackathon scene and we should encourage all organizers to define clear goals, so that potential attendees can find the events best suited to their interests.
Events like hackBCA, which is organized by and targeted at high school students, show incredible promise at creating the next generation of hackers.
It’s great to see such a strong focus being put on inclusion at hackathons, both in terms of improving gender equality and helping budding hackers learn the skills necessary to take part. In regards to the latter, I was particularly impressed with the program put together by ADI at Columbia College.
Ensuring that hackathons are safe and respectful environments for all attendees is crucial and will continue to be so. At ChallengePost, we’ve been thinking about our role within the hackathon community. We’d love your feedback on this Quora thread addressing what we can do to boost gender equality.
“People don’t remember facts, they remember stories.”
One of the strongest calls to action was from Tess Rinearson, who edits the Medium collection “Hackers and Hacking” (where this will be cross posted). Tess called for more storytelling to celebrate both the hacks and the hackers that create them.
Storytelling maximizes the impact and reward of a hackathon. Solving problems through software inspires creators and witnesses alike, and we need to celebrate these stories. I believe there are several levels of storytelling necessary within the hackathons world; the movement, the events, the projects, and the people who create all three.
People go to hackathons for a variety reasons, some to learn, some to compete, some to network, and many more. As a hackathon organizer I used to think of my events as a platform for people to create. But now, I prefer to think of them as a way for people to tell stories about themselves and the things they make.
Many organizers are themselves developers, and it’s easy to fixate on the brilliance of a hack - but ultimately, the whole story is what will make it compelling. During a presentation I once made to a senior political leader, I was surprised by how quickly he moved the conversation beyond the projects to the teams behind them.
Events are getting big & demos are getting harder
The most technical issue discussed over the weekend was logistical: demos & judging. Most agreed that the “everyone demos to everyone” model doesn’t scale well at larger events. ‘Science fair’ judging, where judges and other participants get to experience hack demos personally at assigned tables, seems to be the most popular option currently. However, this method has it’s own issues; namely ensuring that all hacks get equal attention and that hackers get to experience each other’s work.
At ChallengePost we’re working on two fronts to help address this. First, our submission galleries are designed as “online science fairs” — once you submit your hack, it’s visible to attendees, judges, and the world at large. Whether you’re five tables or five miles away, you can check out everyone’s work.
Second, we’ve created a mobile-optimized judging experience. Judges can accurately score projects while walking around the room, while organizers can monitor their progress without having to chase them down. I think it’s a step in the right direction.
Next up for us on the college hackathon front is PennApps. We’re excited to continue working with them again and I look forward to seeing you all there!
January 30, 2014
This is the second post in a new series by Richard Murby about how to throw the perfect hackathon.
You can’t run a hackathon in a vacuum. A successful event relies on sponsors, press, and attendees — all of which you have to coordinate. More importantly though, it’s your responsibility to manage their expectations and keep everyone on the same page.
Common sense says it’s better to under promise and over deliver, but that’s tricky. Today we’ll explore how to set reasonable expectations for stakeholders and attendees. We’ll explore sponsor-specific expectations in the future.
Scope of Work & Outcomes
Before joining ChallengePost, I organized hackathons for the World Bank. I mention this because, as in many organizations, there are several layers of approval and numerous stakeholders across the organization. I often needed to gain the buy-in (permission) of leadership figures to throw the events.
I am a techno-optimist and I’ve seen amazing things happen at and following hackathons. However, I always prefer to be modest when explaining the possible outcomes.
Below, I’ve listed the four most common questions I’ve heard from stakeholders in various organizations. Each comes with it’s own assumptions. Many times they’ll come from your biggest supporters — all the more reason to make sure they understand the likely outcomes.
"Are we going to get fully working, completed ‘apps’?"
- No, but it’s reasonable to expect some interesting seeds of future projects that could become working apps.
"We’ve proposed a series of problems. They will all be solved, right?"
- No, there isn’t any guarantee that the problems will be worked on. However, if you approach the event in the right way, there is every chance of moving the needle towards a solution or significantly changing your understanding of the problem.
"Are all of the developers going to adopt our API after this?"
- Some might. However, and especially if the API is new, you can expect a ton of great feedback on it.
"Will we own the IP of everything that is created?"
- I always recommend against transferring IP rights at hackathons. You’re inviting hackers to come and use their creativity to work with interesting technologies or on interesting issues. This isn’t about free labor. Design your hackathon to maximize creativity and talk to your legal department if you have any concerns.
The best way to set an attendee’s expectations is to make as much information as possible available ahead of the event. Logistics (wifi, meals, sleeping arrangements, etc) and schedule information — especially venue opening hours — are critical. And make sure there is a way for potential attendees to communicate directly with you about special needs (disabled access, dietary restrictions, etc).
One of my most testing moments as a hackathon organizer was realizing on a Saturday night that I had attendees from out of town with nowhere to stay and a venue that was about to shut down. I could have solved this an advance by making sure my guests knew they couldn’t hack overnight.
Judges can be a big draw for your attendees, as is the opportunity for your hackers to meet and showcase their work to leaders in their field. It’s fair for attendees to assume any listed judges will be there in person. Make sure you are clear if they won’t be.
I’ll cover judging in a later post, however you should communicate several things to your judges:
- How long they should expect to be at the event
- If they will need to give any specific feedback
- What, if any, preparation they will need to complete their tasks
If this is also their first time at a hackathon, it’s wise to help judges understand what the teams will likely be able to achieve during the event. It’s also helpful to always remind judges that hackathon projects often lack polish — and that technical problems often occur during demonstrations. Not every judge is a die-hard coder.
Team & Volunteers
To run your event smoothly, you’ll probably need to recruit some volunteers. Hackathons often appear to be chaotic, they are not like heavily structured conferences — and this is what makes them great. I always tell people: “Hackathons are a mess, right up until you realize that mess is perfect.”
When asking people to volunteer, try to be as specific as possible about what you will be asking them to do and the time commitment you expect them to make. Some of the most crucial hackathon jobs are not particularly glamorous.
Pulling It All Together
The key to managing expectations is transparency from the get-go. Always be up-front, especially if anything is ‘different’ about your hackathon. Both new and experienced attendees will fill in the blanks (often with undesirable results) when you don’t specify details.
Thanks for reading, next time we’ll talk about IP / Open Source and lawyers. Happy hacking!
January 23, 2014
Back in July 2010, ChallengePost partnered with the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) to develop a platform that allowed entrepreneurs, innovators, and the public to compete for prestige and prizes by contributing creative solutions to tough problems.
The result is Challenge.gov — a powerful platform that brings together the best ideas and talent to drive innovations within and beyond government.
We’re proud to announce that today, Challenge.gov is being honored as the recipient of the Harvard Innovations in American Government Award, a prestigious prize given by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Challenge.gov was chosen from a pool of more than 600 applicants.
Examples of Challenge.gov competitions include a Robocall Challenge, in which one winning solution has blocked 84,000 robocalls so far, a Disability Employment Apps Challenge that sought innovative technology tools to improve employment opportunities and outcomes for people with disabilities, and a technology competition designed by USDA and First Lady Michelle Obama — Apps for Healthy Kids — that sought engaging software tools and games that drive children to eat better and be more physically active.
Challenge.gov by the numbers, to-date:
- 300+ scientific, engineering, design, multimedia, ideation, and software challenges
- 3.6 million+ visits from every state, including 11,680 cities, and every country around the world
- Used by 59 federal agencies to crowdsource solutions
- Countless unprecedented public-private partnerships
Our partnership with GSA has been a shining example of how startups can successfully work with government agencies to engage the public and solve problems in a meaningful way.
We’ve been tremendously inspired to see so many Americans making a difference along with their government, and we can’t wait to see more.
More about Challenge.gov:
Challenge.gov Wins “Innovations in American Government” Award [The White House Blog]
Celebrating Challenge.gov: Three Years of Innovation [YouTube]
January 21, 2014
photo courtesy of Cali4beach
ChallengePost is kicking the year off right with a full slate of awesome hackathons. East Coast. West Coast. Midwest. Northeast. Down South. Pakistan. Singapore. Canada. We’re powering more hackathons every day. Don’t forget to pack your charger!
Join programmers, designers, urban mappers, data analysts, and community organizers to reboot local services in Pakistan. Create solutions that enable city governments to be more open, efficient, and in tune with the needs of citizens.
(1/25) Hack & Roll - Singapore
Hack & Roll is the largest student-run hackathon in Singapore and an open platform for hackers to gather, collaborate, and build new things. In the spirit of hacking, there are no bad ideas, “awesome but useless” projects are encouraged.
(1/25) hackpoly - San Luis Obispo, CA
Hackpoly ‘14, organized by major technical clubs on campus, spans 4 colleges and 9 majors within the University and is set to be the event of the year. If you’re a student in the inland empire, you should be there!
(1/25) IBM InfoSphere Hackathon - Cambridge, MA
Explore applications for data streams and solve real world problems with InfoSphere® Streams, an advanced computing platform that allows user-developed applications to quickly ingest, analyze, and correlate information as it arrives from thousands of real-time sources.
(1/29) RIT iOS App Challenge - Rochester, NY
Learn Objective-C and make an iOS app in less than a week. With hands on training sessions, support from Apple engineers, and recruiters in attendance — this is your chance to make a big splash in the iOS community.
(1/31) Kent State Fashion / Tech Hackathon - Kent, OH
Wearable tech such as Google Glass and smart watches are at the nexus of fashion and technology. Come join fellow students for a 24-hour hackathon dedicated to melding fashion with new technology to create cool products and concepts.
(2/1) Filmgate Miami Interactive Story Hackathon - Miami Beach, FL
Join filmmakers and programmers to redefine the documentary for the Internet age. Combine software and documentary footage to build interactive prototypes for the web — be they mobile sites, web apps, widgets, games, or something we’ve never seen before!
(2/1) Planet Hatch - Fredericton, New Brunswick
Local businesses and developers are invited to come and hack interesting projects, exchange programming & design tips, and contribute to building a stronger coding community in the heart of New Brunswick.
(2/8) WECode - Cambridge, MA
Food, swag, stellar mentors, and most important of all — the opportunity to hack with the amazing women of WECode, the premier conference for collegiate women in engineering. Workshops will be hosted by Facebook, Intuit, Google, Microsoft, Qualcomm, and more.
(2/15) ID Hack - Cambridge, MA
The International Development Hackathon is a 24-hour event bringing together hackers, international development enthusiasts, and NGOs from the greater Boston area to work on projects that will make an impact on international development.
(2/15) Hacking EAST - APIs for ART - Austin, TX
Create mobile applications that help local artists list their works and art-lovers share ‘em. Prizes include gold badges to SXSW, art by local artists, and one month of co-working space at GoLab Austin.