Was delighted to be given the opportunity to present tonight at BuzzConf Nights – a user group style offering from the people behind the BuzzConf Technology Festival which is held in Ballan in November (see my previous post on BuzzConf over here). I chose to speak on emerging technologies and machine ethics considerations in user interfaces – an incredibly interesting area.
You can find the slides over at – https://kathyreid.github.io/buzzconf-night-2016-presentation/#/Introduction
Planning for the event started around May, which was a little later than the 2015, however this year’s event had been scheduled later in July so that it didn’t fall over the University and School holidays. This year’s organisation was much easier given that we knew what to expect, and had learned a number of lessons from our inaugural year, including the importance of strong, easy wireless, clear instructions on what had to be done, and ensuring our GovHackers were well fed. We decided early on to split up into teams to spread out the organisational load of the event – with a national liaison / admin type role, a marketing and communications role, a sponsorship role and a logistics / catering / venue liaison role. This worked out quite well, and it’s a strategy that we’ll likely employ in future years.
Our promotional strategy this year was a little different from last year, where significant efforts were made to engage with the secondary school community around Geelong. These had only limited success, and so this year we turned our attention to attempting to engage at the business and industry level in Geelong, in particular with development and software companies. This was an excellent idea by Todd Hubers, our communications and marketing lead, and we were able to attract at least one corporate-based team. By using registrations from last year, we were also able to engage developers who’d participated in 2015. We also engaged media early on, with a write up in the Geelong Advertiser. This helped to spread the word early on. Of course, we also put significant effort into social media, with our Twitter and Facebook presence growing significantly in the lead up to this year’s event – a mechanism which can then be leveraged further into future year’s events. We supplemented all these efforts with a poster campaign that was delivered through key developer and student channels (GovHack Geelong 2016 Learn New Skills poster, 2MB PDF).
There are however some Geelong institutions and open data sources I’d really like to include in future year events so that we continue to build and grow on the momentum that’s already being generated. In particular, it would be great to have organisations like Barwon Water, Department of Education (in particular I’d really like Year 12 completion data by location or school), and Barwon Health more actively engaged. Of course, both the engagement component and the ‘doing’ component – gathering, cleansing, governing and releasing open data – has a resource overhead. While movements like GovHack help to prove the value of open data, it can take some time for large organisations to come around to the viewpoint that their data is more valuable when it’s shared openly, and be willing to invest time and resources in doing so.
The event itself – hackers, hacking and hacks
The event itself was a blast! We had great representation from our sponsors – City of Greater Geelong, Deakin University, Geelong Regional Library Corporation and Aconex – and this allowed us to provide strong catering (thanks to the folks at Waterfront Kitchen). Well fed hackers are happy hackers. Some of the glitches we experienced last year with internet connectivity were ironed out before this year, and we only had one instance of someone being unable to connect to the wireless network. The network survived a massive onslaught, with video, massive datasets and large imagery all testing its mettle!
The biggest technical issue of the event turned out to be the GovHack Hackerspace itself. With the flood of submissions just before ‘keyboards down’ at 5pm on the Sunday, the site ground to a halt – causing consternation amongst the hackers that they’re hard earned projects may not be recognised. The Hackerspace was kept open for an additional few hours to allow the teams to upload their finished products.
The atmosphere of the day was fantastic. One of my favourite moments was Baby Olive helping out her Dad – Ian Priddle of Codeacious.
Without a doubt, having good Git skills for any coder or developer is becoming a prerequisite for all hackathons now, as is a GitHub account. There was mention of using Bitbucket occasionally, but Git is still by far the most popular choice for distributed version control for developers.
Slack really took off this year, with the GovHackHQ Slack having nearly 900 simultaneous users during the event. It’s fair to say that Slack has hit widespread adoption – and that’s largely due to both the large range of integrations it has available, as well as the excellent user experience it provides – irrespective of platform or operating system. It’s one of the few tools I can use that has both a native client on the operating systems I use – mainly Android and Linux – as well as an excellent and feature-equivalent web interface.
Hardware wise, I observed lots of wireless mice, and lots of ‘second screens’ – one screen just doesn’t seem to be enough anymore – perhaps a symbol of our ever-more-multitasked world?
UX skills and techniques also seem to be gaining traction – I saw user stories, wireframing, storyboarding and even some basic persona mapping going on.
Projects delivered by Geelong teams at GovHack Geelong 2016
Over recent years, the term ‘hackathon‘ has entered mainstream parlance. There are many nuances in just what a hackathon is – very eloquently articulated by Jack Skinner. What I’d like to unpack today however is the growing number of hackathons in the Australian technical and entrepreneurial scene – and whether we’ve reached a point where there are now so many that they’ve become ineffective. This saturation point is a condition I’ll term ‘peak hackathon‘.
What hackathons are there?
Over the past two months alone around the city of Melbourne, Australia, there are a plethora of hackathon events;
GovHack– a national open data hackathon where participants leverage open data from federal, state and local government authorities to build new tools for citizens (free to attend)
Girl Geek Academies #SheHacks – a hackathon for women only where a number of female mentors are present, aimed at providing connections and a space for women to test new business ideas ($AUD 100 to attend)
#Moonhack by Code Club Australia – aimed at children aged 9-11, this hackathon is a world record attempt to get as many children as possible hacking at once (free to participate).
Unihack– run by Monash University’s student IT society, this hackathon is aimed at university students only and has fairly open-ended goals – with a working product being the overall goal (free to attend).
The rise in the volume of hackathons is completely understandable. While the empirical evidence is thin – largely because hackathons are a very recent phenomena, the case studies that have emerged are generally positive – hackathons are great ways to generate ideation, to facilitate social connections and to grow innovative products and services (see references below).
Hackathons are also great was to build social capital and technical communities – for instance around a particular language, a geography or a product.
So, what’s the problem?
As hackathons gain additional traction and recognition as hotbeds of innovation, the sheer volume of hackathons being run is now becoming the problem itself.
Why? It comes down to dollars and people.
Hackathons have a number of expenses. Firstly, you need a venue to house the hackathon. Sometimes this will be donated in-kind or at a discount, but sometimes not. Then, you have to feed your hackers – well, you don’t have to, but it’s considered de rigueur to do so. Often, the venue will have a contractual obligation in place to use a particular catering company, so even if the hackathon is able to obtain the venue for a low price point, the provision of catering is often much more expensive. Next, you will need stationery, which for a smaller hackathon is often a neglible cost, but can run to hundreds of dollars for larger events. Factor in marketing and media coverage (such as promoted posts or tweets), prizes for hacks and suddenly the cost of running your hackathon can run to thousands of dollars.
Sponsorship, up until recently, has generally been relatively easy to obtain. Organisations want to align themselves with groups that represent innovation and creativity, and especially where the organisation receives additional benefits, such as the ability to scout for talent or first pick of the minimum viable products delivered at a hackathon. However, as the number of hackathons in the market increase, sponsorship is becoming more difficult to obtain in some cases. Alternatively, the amount of money that organisations are willing to direct to hackathons is diluted – meaning that a hackathon may need to deal with twice the number of sponsors – who are contributing reduced amounts of capital – thus placing an administrative overhead on the hackathon organisers – who are generally volunteers. Building sponsor relationships takes time and effort – that often needs to be sustained over several years.
An alternative to this is to charge attendees – such as #SheHacks charging $AUD 100 per participant. However, this choice – as financially necessary as it may be – places additional barriers to entry in place for participants. For instance, some potential participants may need childcare to attend (something that GovHack Melbourne provides for free), and others may need to give up paid work to attend. So, competing for sponsorship indirectly means more barriers to participation – something that all hackathons want to avoid.
The plethora of hackathons sprouting up also means that competition now exists not only for sponsor patronage, but for developer / creative / entrepreneurial attendees. A hackathon is a significant time commitment – often two-three days over a weekend – competing with leisure time, family time – or for the more introverted attendees – ‘alone’ time. Hackathons are intense. They require significant investment of cognitive effort, long hours – and although fun, exciting and exhilarating – often leave participants tired or drained. There is a limit to how many of them attendees can actually do without feeling drained our burned out – again something all hackathons wish to avoid.
Lastly, but certainly not leastly, the other resource that becomes contended when we reach peak hackathon is volunteer time. Most hackathons – apart from corporate hack days – where the organisation has paid members of staff organise the hackathon – are run on volunteer time and effort. The number of volunteers we have in Australia has actually increased over the last five years, but the number of hours they are volunteering on average has significantly reduced. While it’s unknown whether this statistic extrapolates to hackathons and the technical community, it stands to reason that if there are more hackathons, requiring more volunteer effort, and that the pool of volunteer time is finite, sooner or later hackathons are going to contend for the same volunteers. This in turn leads to volunteer burn out – which reduces the overall capital of the community.
So, what can we do to collectively address the situation?
Dates – finding dates are hard. We have to schedule around university holidays (as students won’t attend if they’ve gone home for term break), major events (such as sporting events), and simply time of the year (if it’s 40 degrees outside, you might be at the beach). Trying to then co-ordinate around multiple other hackathons may then appear to be a bridge too hard to cross, particularly if the hackathon is national or international in scale.
Hackathon summit – another option is for the leaders of various hackathons to stay in regular and constant contact, and identify the areas where they should, and should not be collaborating. This might take the form of co-ordinating around which sponsors will be approached, or co-ordinating around dates, or co-ordinating around shared resources – for instance information on how to source childcare. Great collaboration will mean less competition.
Volunteer pipeline – the most effective volunteers are those who have significant experience and connections throughout the hackathon community. The downside of course is that if people are effective in a volunteer capacity they are often ‘rewarded’ with additional work. Collectively we can work together to identify, nurture and grow the volunteer base. Of course, this nurturing itself is an additional task.
Less money for prizes, more money for participation – with significant funds from hackathons going to prize money, it may make more sense to divert funds to participation activities – bursaries, child care, travel and accommodation grants – from prize money. Whether this would deter those hackers who come to hackathons purely for the money on offer is unknown – but it may serve to increase participation from under-represented cohorts.
What do you think? Are there other actions we could be taking as hackathon organisers to address peak hackathon?
Full disclosure: I’m the site lead for GovHack Geelong, a GovHack official event, and sit on the board of Linux Australia, an incorporated association which auspices GovHack as well as many other technical events such as Pycon-AU and linux.conf.au.
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