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

 

BuzzConf 2015 – Emerging technology festival

Note: apologies it’s taken me so long to write this up, largely because of prepping for linux.conf.au

Buzzconf‘s inaugural event, a 3-day festival, held at Phoenix Park near Ballan, was a unique experience, and one that struck an ideal balance between festival, conference, unconference and hackathon. Produced by Ben Dechrai and Rick Giner, Buzzconf brought together futurists, technology enthusiasts, developers, designers and thinkers for an open exchange of ideas in a relaxed park setting.

Key presentations

All the presentations I attended were great, and the ones that stood out in terms of ideas were;

  • Paul Fenwick on the Future is Awesome: Paul’s talk delved into the growing area of machine ethics, and posed such dilemmas for us to cogitate on as ‘what happen if an driver-less car has to make a decision about killing its occupants, or pedestrians?’, with the punch-line being ‘and if so, would you buy that car?’. Paul’s engaging and influential presentation style had the audience on the edge of their seat, and left us pondering not just the morality of machines, but the morality of man; the consequences for automata for areas like insurance, health care, the military and education are more than a little unsettling. One psychological technique he introduced us to was that of imagining that all of this is happening thousands of years into the future – as an exercise of fiction. By not having to confront the reality of the impacts of machines, cognitively we’re better equipped to think about them rationally.
  • Erick Hallander on emerging health technology: Erick covered key trends in healthcare, with some of the key findings being that UX in healthcare settings is almost non-existent. The simple example he used of trying to ensure rigourous hand-washing practices within a hospital highlight how much bureaucracy gets in the way of good design. He also talked a lot about patient – or user – empowerment in health care now that medical information is more accessible than ever, and the problem this brings with it of disinformation also being readily available. On reflection, I wonder if we’ll see the emergence of a field like ‘patient experience’ – as we have with customer experience, learning experience – and which also has a user- or patient- centred focus.
  • Blair Wyatt on SubPos: Blair provided a live demo of SubPos, an open-source wif-fi positioning system. It operates in a similar fashion to other beacon systems, but is fully open source. I was super impressed by Blair’s technical depth, and his discussions around some of the limitations of current hardware in this space, particularly for information interchange. This is a project to keep an eye on – it’s going to do Good Things

The human body as a development platform

I was honoured to be given the opportunity to speak at the inaugural BuzzConf, and I didn’t want to disappoint. I chose the topic of The Human Body as a Development Platform because the evolution of computing platforms is something that fascinates me. How do we make the leap from one technological advancement to the next, and what is it that separates incremental change from paradigm change? From a personal perspective, I’d also had more than a fleeting imbroglio with healthcare concerns, and understood the mindset of bodymodders and bodyhackers – our bodies are our own to personalise, augment, and ‘hack’. I set some of these questions within the context of the evolution of computing platforms – how they have scaled down, become faster and more ubiquitous, but how common elements like security and testing are shared concerns.

The presentation raised more questions than it answered – and they’re questions I’d like to do more thinking around in the future.

Side note: I’m finding that Impress.js is my go-to presentation toolkit these days. It’s HTML based so I can run it off any machine with a standards-compliant web browser, and it also means I can easily host it on Github.io, and just push changes via Git. Not for beginners, but it works well with my existing toolchain.

Key takeaways and other discussions

There were many other discussions and elements at BuzzConf that I was really impressed by;

  • Hackathons and inclusion of all ages: There was a hackathon and pitching session running for a lot of the festival, and measures were taken to ensure that children and people of all technical abilities were able to participate – great to see, given that this year is the National Year of Digital Inclusion. It was challenging to find time to participate in the hackathon with so many other events going on around the festival.
  • Peak hackathon: There were lots of conversations around the topic of ‘peak hackathon’ – with so many corporate hackathons and other hack days going on, the market is becoming very crowded, and there is growing dissatisfaction from the technical community. Many feel that their skills are being exploited rather than ‘harnessed’, with perhaps a few hundred dollars prize as the reward for 2-3 days of skilled technical work. My own view on this is that there is a growing distinction emerging in the focus of hackathons. A spectrum is emerging from the civic-good type events – GovHack, Random Hacks of Kindness, Techfugees and so on to more corporate-focussed events or ‘hackdays’. Jack Skinner provides a much better run down than I can. The resolution to this is unclear – if we have indeed reached ‘peak hackathon’ then we’ll see less of these events being run  – a little bit like the decline in BarCamps. Is this a bad thing? Probably not. Hackathons have taken the place of BarCamps, and sure as there’s a decline in hackathons, something different will fill the void.
  • Non-technical challenges of emerging technology: One of the overarching take-aways for me was that many of the challenges to adoption of emerging technologies are non-technical. Ethical frameworks, policy frameworks and regulatory frameworks are playing catchup to technology, and we need to pay as much attention to these to really catalyse change. This was a theme also underscored by the very respected Michael Cordover at the recent linux.conf.au with his talk on law and technology impedance mismatch. We need more people like Michael – and George Fong – bridging the gap between law and technology.
  • Social capital: Events like BuzzConf have a huge role in building social capital in technical communities – an intangible wealth of goodwill that facilitates information sharing, the favour economy and idea exchange. It was clear that Ben and Rick had done a lot of work in ensuring diversity at the event, and creating a place where children were not just welcomed, but explicitly included in activities.

All in all, I’m delighted to see an event of this nature and this calibre on the Australian technical event calendar. Moreover, I’m delighted that it’s being held in a regional area. Well done, Rick, Ben and team – and I can’t wait for BuzzConf 2016!