We’ve reached Peak Hackathon and this is what we need to do about it

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).
  • Random Hacks of Kindness Melbourne (#RHoK) – positioned as a social hackathon, RHOK focuses on developments that provide social outcomes (free to attend).

Why are we reaching ‘peak hackathon’?

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.

References

  • Decker, A., Eiselt, K., & Voll, K. (2015). Understanding and improving the culture of hackathons: Think global hack local. In Frontiers in Education Conference (FIE), 2015. 32614 2015. IEEE (pp. 1–8). IEEE.
  • Isaac-Menard, R. (2016). Hack the library Organizing Aldelphi University Libraries’ first hackathon. College & Research Libraries News, 77(4), 180–183.
  • Jetzek, T. (2016). ElEmEnts of a succEssful Big Data HackatHon in a smart city contExt. Geoforum Perspektiv, 14(25).
  • Leclair, P., & a Catalyst, O. D. I. (2015). Hackathons: A Jump Start for Innovation. Public Manager, 44(1), 12.
  • Lewis, B. A., Parker, J., Cheng, L. W., & Resnick, M. (2015). UX Day Design Challenge Hackathon to Apply Rapid Design Ideation to a Practical User Experience Challenge. In Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting (Vol. 59, pp. 304–306). SAGE Publications.
  • Rice, J. (2015). Hackathon implementation for industry and academia. UTICA COLLEGE
GovHack 2015 group photo, credit: Mo Xiao Xiang
GovHack 2015 group photo, credit: Mo Xiao Xiang

 

The Light Clock

My Light Clock arrived on Friday, and the weekend was a great opportunity to set it up and learn more about how it worked.

I’d backed this project for two key reasons;

  • The project was run by an Australian hardware and software engineer – Chris Carter – who was recommended by colleagues in the opensource community. I’m passionate about opensource development, and I wanted to help back an Australian project, particularly given the success of LIFX.
  • The project was based on open hardware and open software. The base board for The Light Clock appears to be the arduino-compatible ESP8266 which is fast becoming the go-to board for open hardware developers. The lighting is based on AdaFruit’s neopixel range.

The box was very plain and simple, and the device itself was packed with polystyrene peanuts and bubble wrap – very secure nonetheless. The Australian adaptor was included in the box, however the lead on the device was only about 1.5m long. The Light Clock sticker on the back of the device was a nice touch, however I would have liked a Light Clock sticker separate in the box for say laptop stickering. Being one of the first 200 people to receive a Light Clock device, a ‘Kickstarter Edition’ engraving or similar would have been a welcomed addition, but understandably not part of minimum viable shippable product.

First steps with #thelightclock, a @kickstarter project I backed.

A photo posted by @kathyreid_id_au on

The short lead presented the first design and installation challenge; ostensibly this device is aimed at replacing existing analogue clocks that are wall-mounted. However, it’s rare that someone would have a general power outlet (GPO) high up on their wall, necessitating a fairly long lead run to a ground-level GPO. This may not be the case in say corporate offices, which may already have networked clocks in place, or existing infrastructure for digital signage.

Connecting to the network

The next challenge was connecting to the Light Clock, and getting it on to my home wi-fi network, so that it could use NTP to keep in sync. The Light Clock correctly appeared as an advertised SSID in my Network Manager, however every attempted connection to this SSID failed. Rather than spend the time diagnosing it, I used my Nexus 5X mobile phone, running stock Android, to connect to The Light Clock SSID. This was successful on the first attempt, and I was able to join The Light Clock to my home wifi network. As expected, The Light Clock could not see my 5GHz SSID, and could only see my 2.4GHz SSID. This appears to be pretty normal for most IoT devices at the moment, but I suspect we’ll see more support for the 5GHz frequency over time. The service that joined The Light Clock wasn’t responsively designed, so it was a bit tricky on a mobile device.

Once I got the device on the network, I then went back to try and diagnose why I couldn’t connect to The Light Clock SSID via Ubuntu, and found something very interesting. The MAC address picked up by the router, shown in the image below, was;

18:fe:34:e2:14:43

however, the MAC address picked up in dmesg (the Ubuntu Network Manager log) was

1a:fe:34:e2:14:43

So, I think there may be an issue with the MAC address it’s broadcasting, or how my machine was picking up the MAC address. Here’s a link to the dmesg logs in case anyone is curious. For the record, I’m using an Atheros network card in my ASUS N76. It’s otherwise generally pretty reliable.

How The Light Clock appears as a device on the router
How The Light Clock appears as a device on the router

Configuring The Light Clock

Configuring The Light Clock proved much easier than getting the device on the network. You simply connect to a web interface to the device over your WiFi network and adjust the settings.

Another observation was that clear setup instructions were at thelightclock.com/setup.

/setup is becoming the default setup URL for devices such as this

The Light Clock settings screen
The Light Clock settings screen

Experimenting with colours yielded some interesting conclusions. The colour settings tended to work best when both colours – the hours colour and the minutes colour – were heavily saturated and bright. Neon type colours – bright pinks, yellows, blues and greens – tended to work best in terms of contrast between hours and minutes. For someone whose house is pretty much all neutral shades – stones, earthy colours – finding a colour palette that was both clearly readable but resonant with the rest of the interior design was very challenging, and I couldn’t settle on a palette that met both requirements.

The blending option when set high tended to make the time much more difficult to read, and I settled on the lowest blending setting. The other feature that would be useful here would be the ability to adjust the brightness of the hours colour setting and minutes colour setting independently, so for instance you could have a very bright hours setting and a very dull minutes setting. I’m not sure if this is possible with the Neopixel hardware though. I did have a look at the source code to see if it was an easy pull request to do, but I couldn’t figure out how the brightness value is added to the pixel colours.

The settings also had three slots to save different colour schemes, which is a useful UX addition, however I would have liked to have seen more slots. In experimenting with the hour markers, I found that no hour markers at all actually made the time more readable, which was counter-intuitive.

With a little tweaking, I think this device could be integrated into other design projects, such as on canvas or with something like LilyTwinkle.

Integration with other IoT devices

One of the key drawbacks of The Light Clock is that it doesn’t appear to have any integration with other IoT devices, such as LIFX, Hue, Nest and so on. There are a number of use cases I can see for The Light Clock to have a lot of additional value if integrated such as;

  • Using The Light Clock as a visual indicator of notifications, phone ringing and alerts
  • Synchronising The Light clock as a wake-up device. Currently I use LIFX to slowly turn on my bedroom light in the morning, and I’d like The Light Clock to be synchronised with this, particularly given that it tends to work best with neon colours.
  • Integrating Light Clock control in to other apps – such as LIFX. I’m really glad that I don’t have to install yet another mobile application to control The Light Clock – because the IoT app market is already so fragmented.

I was also half expecting some sort of documented API for The Light Clock so that I could experiment with some integration myself, and although the source code is available, the device itself doesn’t appear to have a documented API or web service. From what I can tell, the settings page basically takes a bunch of GET variables and writes them to the board, so even knowing the range of GET vars would help to be able to integrate The Light Clock with other devices.

The verdict

This is a great product for people passionate about open hardware, and who like to tinker, but it’s not yet mature enough for a mainstream product. With some small design tweaks and attention to detail in the codebase, it would be a strong standalone product, however it’s key value lies in integrating with other IoT devices to provide meaningful and valuable interactions.

I’m not sure what I’ll do with my Light Clock – I don’t have a wall mounted GPO or GPO in range where I could mount one, unless I find a longer-lead adaptor.

List of feedback for next iteration of this product

  • Include an adaptor that has a long lead to cater for the use case where someone doesn’t have a wall-mounted GPO available, or allow this to be selected during the purchase process.
  • Alternatively, the product could be redesigned to run on batteries (wasteful) or better, power over ethernet – but again the same design limitation remains – just as people are unlikely to have a wall mounted GPO available, they’re even less likely to have a wall mounted RJ45 ethernet port available. I suspect this will change as more and more people have networked devices on their wall though, so I don’t see it as a major limitation.
    Note to self: I need to include wall-mounted GPOs and RJ45 sockets in my home renovation master plan
  • Chris Carter’s The Light Clock source code is available on GitHub, but isn’t in its own project. There also aren’t any license files for the different repositories, so I’m not sure if I’m allowed to fork it or issue pull requests.
  • In the settings, you manually have to set whether it’s daylight savings time or not. Given that it uses NTP for keeping network time, I would have thought it would be possible to get it to automatically accommodate daylight savings time. Could be wrong here, NTP may not store that data, or it may be difficult to pick up the geolocation from the home wifi network.
  • Have separate brightness settings for minutes and hours
  • The web interface for adjusting The Light Clock settings would benefit from being responsively designed
  • Can haz API plzkthx 😀

 

Update: trying to mount it to the wall

So, I gave mounting it to the wall a go. This was a nightmare. The two circular openings to hang The Light Clock with are flush to the back of the clock, meaning that I couldn’t mount it with cuphooks  as the hooks were too curved to snag into the openings. I also tried with the Command re-usable big hooks, and tried to assemble them so I stuck them in the openings first, then tried to stick the entire lot to the wall, with no success. Definitely frustrating. Even if I had got it to mount on the wall, I would have still had a cord trailing down the wall, and the 1.5m power cord is still insufficient to reach the GPO.

Was anyone else able to mount this successfully? How did you do it?

Learning Bitcoin and the blockchain with the 21.co bitcoin computer

Digital currencies have been gaining traction for some time now, and although I had a broad sense of what they did and how they could be used, I hadn’t had an opportunity to utilise them in a real world setting. So, I set some personal learning goals and set about achieving them:

  • To learn the terminology associated with digital currencies, in particular Bitcoin, and the blockchain, which would serve as a foundation for building my knowledge
  • To undertake some practical exercises involving the actors, methods and marketplaces for digital currency, allowing me to explore limitations, current and future applications, and understand the enterprise use cases for the blockchain.

Buying the 21.co bitcoin computer

The initial research indicated that the 21.co bitcoin computer would be a good place to start. What drew me to it was that it was backed by some big names in the industry, and its approach to a digital currency marketplace was unique; leveraging micro payments for micro transactions such as sending an SMS or an email. Based on Raspbian and running Linux also gave it bonus points 🙂

The first problem encountered was that it didn’t ship to Australia. Challenge accepted.

Having already set up an Australia Post Digital Mailbox, it was super easy to establish a ShopMate account. The experience here was seamless, and for an additional $AUD 43 my 21.c0 bitcoin computer was shipped from Portlandia to Australia. Win!

The cost of the computer was a bit steep at $USD 399, which worked out to just under $AUD 600 with the woeful exchange rate. Still, I figured this was cheaper than say a formal course on bitcoin or blockchain.

Initial steps

Unboxing, as many fellow geeks will resonate with, is a ritual, and an integral part of any large tech purchase. The 21.co didn’t disappoint. The packaging was sleek, black, minimal and beautifully put together. The Raspberry Pi-based computer was nestled comfortably in black firm styrofoam, with the power cords and accessories stashed underneath.

Inside the box was the 21.co bitcoin computer itself, power cord, and USB cable to connect the board to your computer for initial setup. The USB cable actually had four connectors, but the 21.co board has three pins. The unneeded connector (red) had been cut off, to make setup easier. This was a small detail, but indicative of the thought that had been put into the product. A USB wireless adaptor was included in the box, without which the product would have been almost unusable, so this was a great inclusion. Perhaps the only improvement suggestion here would be to use a WiFi adaptor that supports both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz ranges – my router runs two SSIDs, one on each range, and the included WiFi adaptor was only able to connect to the 2.4GHz SSID.

The only component that wasn’t initially included that I had to hunt up was a US -> ANZ power adaptor, which is forgivable considering 21.co don’t technically ship to Australia.

Behold! The first three @21 Bitcoin Computers in The Netherlands. Want to join the hackathon? Let me know!

The next step was to connect my Ubuntu 14.10 LTS-based laptop to the 21.co and run some setup software. This was excellently documented, with instructions inside the box itself, and also prominently displayed on the 21.co website. What I really liked about the setup was that there was an automatic version, and a manual version if you had more experience on a Linux CLI. There were also options for other operating systems.

I got a little bit stuck on the initial setup, and couldn’t get the setup.py script to run. Initially, I wondered whether I’d triggered an unsafe shutdown of the device, and it was trying to re-index the database, so I let it run setup overnight. This didn’t fix the issue, so I jumped on to the 21.co support Slack (about 0700hrs Australian Eastern Standard Time – so GMT +1000hrs), thinking that no one would be online. Not only was support readily available, it was helpful, polite, friendly, and assumed that technically I knew what I was doing – an excellent support experience. In the end, it was a total n00b issue – the microSD card in the 21.co computer wasn’t seated correctly!

#21co first steps with #bitcoin and #blockchain

A photo posted by @kathyreid_id_au on

 

Learning a bit more

Once I had run setup successfully, I was able to mine my first Satoshis (sub-units of Bitcoin currency). Because it’s now difficult to mine Bitcoin directly, due to the computational complexity, a single machine has a very low probability of successfully mining a Bitcoin block. To work around this limitation, 21.co facilitates a collective approach called buffered pooled mining. In this scenario, many 21.co computers work co-operatively to mine Bitcoin, and collectively distribute the rewards. This means that you may only receive a few thousand Satoshis per day, but it’s sufficient to learn the concepts involved and start to prototype applications and ecosystems that leverage Bitcoin and the blockchain.

The next challenge was to see if I could set up a simple application that utilised the 21.co infrastructure to provide services for micro payments of Bitcoin. Using the tutorial, it was reasonably quick and easy to do. I found all the tutorials were written in really clear, simple terms, and stepped you through the different concepts being demonstrated in a very logical way. There were a few glitches along the way, mostly to do with package management and dependencies, so having at least a basic grasp of apt and pip was very useful.

I’m not sure where I’ll go next with this hardware – perhaps a micropayment webservice or too, but even with the initial steps here I’ve got a much better understanding of how Bitcoin and blockchain concepts can be applied more broadly. I could choose to run the 21 Bitcoin computer as a full Bitcoin node, but my internet connection is so slow that it probably isn’t worth it.

Use cases for the blockchain

The foundation of digital currency – the blockchain – has implications far beyond monetary transactions. The blockchain itself models provenance – the ownership of an asset (in the case of digital currencies, monetary assets) over time. Could it be applied to the physical as well as digital world, for instance to record the change of ownership of physical assets? I’m not so sure.

Physical and digital assets have different properties that may limit the blockchain’s applicability to the physical world – for instance physical assets such as cars, houses and jewellery can both be destroyed, or reconfigured. For instance, I could take piece of clothing and burn it, thus destroying it. The blockchain – or at least the Bitcoin blockchain, cannot easily handle such a use case, and the protocol would need to be extended to do so. It also cannot handle the reconfiguration of assets. Let’s say that I have a string of pearls, with 100 pearls on the string, that was given to be my by mother. The blockchain could record the change of ownership from my mother to I, but let’s say that I cut the string of pearls in half, creating two shorter strings with 50 pearls each, and then I gift one of the 50-pearl strings to my sister. The blockchain could handle this monetarily – splitting one value into two values, each distributed to separate owners, but it could not handle this physically – but recognising that two separate assets had been created where one previously stood. Of course, it’s possible that in time extensions or additions to the blockchain would address these shortcomings – it will certainly be an interesting thread to track.

Privacy and identification in the blockchain are also of interest. The blockchain itself doesn’t identify participants in transactions, which is great for privacy, but not so great for transparency. I suspect we’ll see the rise of services such as OneName which help to identify participants. For instance, imagine if government transactions were on the blockchain – you’d want them to be transparent.

Of course the blockchain itself also represents a unique big data source. As the use of Bitcoin evolves over time, it would be an interesting exercise to observe trends or changes in the patterns of transactions – such as average value, the frequency that BTC was transferred to or from particular addresses and so on.

Another interesting application of blockchain could be in content management and for handling versioning – as essentially a content management system is a series of assets that are mutative via known transaction types. Using blockchain for content management would also help to solve some of the problems around “what did a particular asset or collection of assets look like at a point in time” – as the blockchain contains an entire historical record.

A fascinating area.