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

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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

 

My #ausvotes 2016 experience – a trail of #UX fails

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So, another three years has come around and it was time to choose between Biggie Smallstick and Burst Watermain. In Australia, voting is compulsory – you get fined by the Australian Electoral Commission if you don’t vote – and it would be reasonable to assume that because voting is mandatory, the processes to do so would be streamlined, simple and frictionless.

Hahahaha! Silly Australians. (props, Sammy J).

Firstly, you have to vote in person. While electronic voting has its detractors, this is 2016, and quite frankly, we should have figured it out by now. Maybe it would make referenda on things like equal marriage and becoming a republic too easy and less costly? Who knows. Maybe we need a strong and robust national broadband network to make it work. Whatever, you can’t currently vote online.

You can however do an early vote, in person or by post. This requires pre-registration, and there are rules around who can early vote. Sigh. Too hard. Just easier to nip across the two blocks to the Senior Citizens Centre, where I’ve voted dozens of times before, wait in line for a little while, get a #democracysausage, and even take the doggie for a walk.

Nope.

Even though I’ve voted at the local Senior Citizens Centre dozens of times before, it’s not actually a polling place for the 2016 Federal Election. So, after taking the doggie for walkies on our usual route, which passes by the Senior Citizens Centre, I was surprised to find no AEC signage or personnel there, and no party volunteers. “Perhaps it’s not a polling place this year” I wondered, “I’m sure they will have signposted it if that’s the case”.

Silly Kathy.

There was no signage around at all, and two other ladies walked up to the centre as well. We chatted, and they patted the doggie, and I used my mobile device (Nexus 5X, vanilla Android 6.01) to attempt to solve the problem.

My first approach these days is just to ask Google. So, using Google Now, I asked “Where can I vote today?”.  Google Now helpfully responded with this list of options.

Where can I vote today? Google Now results.
Where can I vote today? Google Now results.

Now, ‘nearest polling place’ sounds like pretty helpful information, right?

Silly Kathy.

Clicking this (sponsored) link took me to the AEC website, which had lots of information on voting types, and how to vote, but not the actual information I was looking for – where I could actually vote. At least it was responsive and showed up on a mobile phone. Not a high barrier, admittedly, but one that all to many websites fail on these days.

General information on voting, not the actual location of where I could vote
General information on voting, not the actual location of where I could vote

Hot tip: If you’re going to use sponsored Google Adwords, please for the love of all that is good in the world, make sure the URL goes to the specific, actual information that you’re promoting.

Also helpfully, Google Now had provided an Australian Federal Election tile. Could this help me, where the website of the government agency actually responsible for elections had not? Let’s find out!

Google Now tile for the Australian Federal Election 2016
Google Now tile for the Australian Federal Election 2016

First, I clicked on the tile. Props to Google Now for knowing that today was an election, and that I was geographically in Australia. So far, so good. Next, I had to search for the electorate I was in, which was a little clunky. I already share both Wi-Fi and GPS location data with Google Now, so from a UX viewpoint it would have been preferable to automatically show the information for the electorate that I was physically in first. But still, much better than the AEC experience.

Then, I had to scroll down a bit to find the actual location information. A handy skip link to locations would have been nice, but still, I could find the information I needed, in the context I needed it, without too much hassle.

Google Now screenshot of polling booth locations for the electorate of Corio, Victoria
Google Now screenshot of polling booth locations for the electorate of Corio, Victoria

For bonus points, the location information linked straight to Google Maps, and also pulled in data from Election Sausage Sizzle (aka Democracy Sausage). Glorious. Thank you, Google. AEC, take notes.

See the full Google election site at https://election.google.com.au

Once I got to my destination, the UX experience continued. There was a banner on the TAFE, where I was voting, but there were no sandwich boards on the pavement or other visual indicators. Really, you could have easily missed that it was a polling place.

Given that I had my doggie with me, there were also few places to securely leave him, and I was grateful for one of the party volunteers, who offered to mind him. He liked her, so I trusted her. Dogs are good judges of character.

The other observation here was that there were few facilities for people – particularly the elderly or less mobile, to sit down. I walked in with a lady who had a limp, and she was clearly in some pain. Somewhere to sit for her would have made it an easier experience.  Sadly, no Democracy Sausage or Democracy Cake, and they would have made a tidy profit – as it was cold and chilly.

The line to vote was thankfully short (I got there just on 0800rs as voting opened), and I waited about 3min 45 seconds to go in and vote (yes, I measured). Once I had my name checked off (painless, the chap had clearly done this several times, he found my name with military precision. He looked like a Menzies fan), there was light at the end of the tunnel. But then I saw it. A donkey voter’s delight.

IT WAS THE SENATE BALLOT PAPER FROM HELL

Measuring up at over a metre long, I couldn’t get this thing into the polling booth without folding it in half. Normally a below-the-line voter, there was no way I could wrestle with this. I admitted defeat, and dutifully pencilled in 1-6 above the line. The poor AEC election official had to stifle laughter as I attempted origami to fold the bloody thing six times to make it fit into the ballot box. No points, would not buy again.

The ballot paper experience actually changed the way I vote, and this is bad for democracy.

On a side note, the election booth actually contained a magnifying sheet for those hard of sight. Admittedly, it would take you an hour to read the Senate Ballot Paper From Hell with the magnifying sheet. But yes, I will concede half a point here for usability.

So, how was my voting experience, or #votex? It sucked. But it would have sucked more if I wasn’t able bodied, didn’t have an Android mobile phone and didn’t have a very clear idea of who I was voting for, enabling me to quickly go from below the line to above the line. If voting is mandatory, we have to make it easier for people. I’m digitally savvy. I’m able bodied. I’m politically astute. And this experience sucked for me. Dammit, I’m an election power user AND IT SUCKED. How on earth does Average Voter Joe feel about this process? No wonder people see their democratic rights as a chore and not a privilege. Australia, we’ve made exercising our democratic rights difficult, clumsy and off-putting.

Making #votex easier for citizens

So, how do we fix it?

  • Electronic voting – we need to find a way to do it reliably, securely, and in a way that all citizens can access
  • If your polling places change from year to year, find a way to let people know. Put a poster on the window of the Senior Citizens’ Centre! Let people set their preferred polling places, so that if their preferred polling place changes, you can notify them and direct them appropriately.
  • UX your website and if you have link that says ‘Click here to find out where to vote’, make sure you take the user to information that tells them where they can vote. It’s not rocket surgery.
  • Fix the senate. Or, failing that, design a ballot paper that isn’t twice the width of the ballot booth.
  • Real time queuing information. That could then be released as open data, so we can do predictive analytics on it for future years. Integrate this with the mobile app.

Democracy. Let’s make it suck less.

The Light Clock

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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?