Hackathons can be considered a new way of creating innovations in many different fields, from tech and software to medicine and other important topics. But hosting a hackathon might not be as easy as it seems, especially if it’s an online one. This post describes the definition of a hackathon and various tips about organizing your own hackathon.
Despite the fact that hackathons were software developers-exclusive events for a long period of time, they have evolved into much more diverse and extensive events in both civic and corporate fields, working with an ever-increasing list of topics and problems. The existence of Covid-19 that forced all of these events to move online has led to even more evolution of the format as it is.
Before even attempting to organize hackathon, it’s important to understand what it actually stands for. Hackathon is a way of stimulating innovation and various crowdsourced solutions in an attempt to solve a specific social issue or a real-life problem(s). In its nature, it is a time-specific competitive or collaborative event with the end goal of building proofs of concept and viable products in an attempt to solve a previously defined problem (or to create an innovation).
In the modern world, hackathons have several advantages over the traditional process of innovations and their management. Hackathons tend to promote collaboration, are agile, inclusive, and have smaller innovation cycles to be able to better respond to the ever-changing consumer demands.
While the main purpose of hackathons is about generating ideas most of the time, there are also other benefits from organizing a hackathon, including future-proofing your business, improving employee engagement rates, enhancing your problem-solving skills, promoting collaboration in general, and many more.
One of the obvious ways of splitting hackathons into different types is by segregating them according to the way they are conducted. This allows us to figure out two main groups – offline, or on-site hackathons, and online hackathons. The main difference between the two ways of organizing a hackathon is the means of performing an event in the first place – while offline hackathons are performed in a specific area that collects all of the participants within the same building or the same venue, the online hackathons can connect people throughout the world without the need of physically bringing them together.
Due to the current state of the world, this post is mostly about online hackathons, even though some of the general traits could easily be applied to both offline and online hackathon types. The main similarity between the two is still the main goal of a standard hackathon – to either collaborate or compete as teams of specialists to solve a specific problem while running a hackathon.
There are other common points, of course, but the main goal of either of the hackathon types remains the same. Additionally, online events hosted using dedicated hackathon-related platforms are capable of receiving a number of advantages over the traditional offline events, such as less overall costs, better chances of reaching someone via social media sites, way bigger audience due to the geographical constraints having much less impact, and the overall better community engagement as a whole.
You can learn more about some of the inspiring hackathons that have tackled various problems with Covid-19.
That being said, online hackathons do have to have a unique set of rules about specific parts of the event, including submissions, judging, etc. This is due to the number of potential problems that may or may not arise in the middle of your online hackathon.
Since hackathons evolved to include a much wider list of fields compared to the original being exclusively for software developers, there are also some industry-specific differences that could arise when preparing a hackathon in the medical industry, for example.
At the same time, it is possible to figure out a list of tips that could be applied to most of the online hackathons if you want to make one yourself. It’s possible that there’ll be some smaller nuances in the process of planning/performing your hackathon, but the general idea could be boiled down to 10 important tips:
An actual goal that’s supposed to be accomplished is a crucial part of any hackathon in any field. While hackathons could easily be considered one of the most valuable networking resources, the prime goal of any one of those is still to either create a specific technology or to solve a specific problem. Additionally, the clearer the goal is, the more likely it is to bring results in the first place. A clear, detailed goal, like “solving a medical issue about infants dying because of breathing-related problems” is much more clear than anything that is more abstract or less precise.
A good example of an event with a defined goal is Hack The Crisis Estonia, which is an online hackathon that was launched a year ago.
The correct scheduling is also as important, meaning that you’ll have a much higher participant counter if you organise hackathon in a way that is not interfering with some other event of sorts. This includes summer and winter breaks, large national holidays, and maybe even some of the larger conferences in your specific field.
Sponsors are also important, for both offline and online hackathons. Commercial sponsors within your industry are capable of helping you with covering the costs of large hackathons in multiple ways, from guaranteeing prizes for your hackathon to providing you with actual money. Of course, sponsorship is a two-way street, and your sponsor would expect something in return, some sort of advertisement or something similar. Additionally, the more hackathons you’ll successfully complete, the more chances you’ll have to acquire additional sponsors and expand everything even more.
Depending on the scope of your hackathon, it’s recommended to provide the participants with information about their participation from weeks to months before an actual event, especially when more popular professionals are involved. That way, all of your participants should be able to clear their schedules in advance. Of course, if your hackathon is more of an internal event for your company’s employees only, there’s no need to notify them about it so early, and the week or two before the event should suffice.
This part depends heavily on the popularity of your hackathon in question and is actually much more relevant for organising a hackathon offline, rather than online. Having too many participants might result in a plethora of issues that you won’t be able to solve all of them at once. This also goes for online hackathons, as well, which is why thinking about the potential amount of participants in advance could do you and your hackathon a lot of good in the future.
Effectiveness is one of the more important parts of organising a hackathon, since all of them have a defined goal. It might not seem that important if you’re having a collaborative hackathon, but on the other hand, if your hackathon is competitive in the first place, you have to carefully think through how to separate people in groups without making it unfair. In that case, it’s recommended for any group to consist of both subject experts and the relative newcomers, so that the entire effort would not seem like an unwinnable situation.
A clear set of rules is another requirement that mostly concerns the competitive part of running a hackathon, but also applies to all of the collaborative ones, as well. Since the competitive environment usually forces different groups of experts to compete with each other, it’s highly important for the entire event to have a defined set of rules that applies to everyone with no exceptions. This goes for both the competitors, having the same amount of time for the job, and the organizers, having specific rules about judgement, submissions, permitted/forbidden technologies, and so on. At the same time, a collaborative effort might not need to have a strict and complex set of rules in place to succeed.
Competitive hackathons also have the choice between having one prize for the winning spot and several prizes for different achievements. Having multiple different competition fields usually attracts more competitors, especially when the event in question is an external one to begin with. That being said, it’s important to remember that the overall value of one prize for everything would be higher than each of the lesser prizes separately.
Another important point about organising a hackathon with competitive nature is the matter of announcing the prizes beforehand. By doing that you’ll be able to attract more potential participants to your event and motivate them to take part. A prize can be in many different forms, including both physical (a piece of hardware from one of the sponsors) and non-physical (a prolonged subscription to an education service of sorts).
Surprisingly enough, hackathons are not always about developing something new or unique. There are also various training sessions for newcomers that could be conducted by one or a few of the experts in the field. Most of the time each of these training workshops are centered on a specific topic in the field, and the most common field of work for these training events is the tech field.
As you can see, there are a lot of nuances that exist for anyone attempting to organise hackathon of any type or form. Having this list of tips would make sure that you’ll be able to escape the majority of problems that such events may or may not bring. At the same time, while all of the above is mostly applied to the online side of hackathons, that’s not to say that most of these tips would not work with their original offline counterpart, if they’ll suddenly become popular again.
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