What I learned from organizing my first hackaton
The Homeless Hackathon in Glasgow took place on the weekend (as Hackathons tend to do) of the 13/15 April at the brilliant Citizen M hotel. I organised the event from start to finish and it’s been added to the ever growing list of over 700 events that I can put my name next to. Like every event there is a similar process to follow to make it happen, however a hackathon is quite unlike any other event I have organised.
So before I list the seven main things I learned from organizing my first hackathon, I wanted to show you what it looked like. So here is the ubiquitous shot of (almost) all the attendees after the judging on the final day:
We were absolutely delighted to attract almost 40 hackers over the weekend. Attending a hackathon isn’t like taking the day off work to attend a conference. It is the WHOLE weekend and you have to pay for the privilege! Spending this amount of time to support the homeless and rough sleeping community in Scotland made every attendee a winner and a champion in my eyes.
What I learned from organizing my first hackathon
1. The venue is absolutely crucial
You will find me going on about the importance of the venue in a lot of posts (specially the ones that cover meeting design) as the venue helps the organiser create the right atmosphere and environment. But the venue is EVEN MORE important for a hackathon and the simple reason is that attendees are likely to spend perhaps 30hrs in total in the place. So, if you get the venue choice wrong, you can sap the energy from the attendees before the caffeine has the chance to work. We had the perfect venue. I couldn’t have actually custom designed a venue that was better for a hackahton. Here’s a few images:
So what I would recommend you look out for in your perfect hackahton venue are:
- Big enough to allow people to spread out
- Different sized spaces to be filled by your different size teams
- Have difference types of spaces; so some more formal desk and chairs, more relaxed coffee tables and some comfy sofas
- Loads of power points (everyone really does bring a laptop)
- A creative setting will really support your attendees to look at innovative ways to solve problems (evidence proves that in a creative space you feel and act more creatively)
- A separate space for the presentations and judging is a huge bonus
- Near other places (perhaps some cool cafes or other places in your actual venue) where attendees can break out. It is unlikely that they would want to spend the whole of the hack in the space you have hired.
- Not too far away from shops for snacks, USBs, paper, etc. (these will be used by the organiser as much as the attendees)
2. Don’t rush things, you have the whole weekend
My initial thought was to get the attendees hacking as quickly as possible. I assumed they would all be rushing to laptops to start coding, designing, making etc. as soon as I’d done my introduction. But that wasn’t the case. The first few hours are crucial and the organiser should not rush attendees “to get hacking”. The traditional format of a few hours on the Friday night should have three main objectives:
- Make sure everyone is comfortable and they have all spoken to each other as much as possible. The organiser has a big role to play in making sure everyone does not feel alone; some of your hackers may turn up without knowing anyone else there.
- Make sure the hackers have as much information about the subject matter and / or the organisations taking part (or know where to find it) as possible during those first few hours.
- Make sure that everyone has provisionally chosen a project or team.
As the organiser if you have managed to cover those three objectives before the end of the first night you should consider your job done for the evening. Some of the teams will start working but they will probably be planning and scoping rather than designing and building.
3. Your attendees are going to share a lot of images of your event on social media
Expect many of your attendees to be posting pictures to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram throughout the whole event. As the organiser this can only be a good thing and you should do all you can to help them share those photos and videos. Encouraging the attendees to use hashtags on the major channels and asking them to mention you and the event (maybe even with a link) in their posts will help e everyone find and share the best images of your event.
It’s always worth looking at your event – if you can – through the eye of a camera to see what would make a good picture. As I’ve said above a great venue makes your event look great but perhaps you can create some visuals that attendees can share? It’s also worth putting your sponsors logos in a few different areas to maximise the coverage of their involvement. To demonstrate the last two points, here’s our badges:
4. Listen to your attendees.
Some of the attendees had been to hackathons before and as I was organising my first hackathon, I made sure I asked the attendees their opinion and views on a few areas were I wasn’t too sure. So I asked them, for example, on the Saturday morning, if they all wanted to do the update as outlined in the programme. They weren’t keen, so rather than force them to do something I took their advice and dropped the slot from the programme. I also consulted with them on the length of time they would need for their presentations. As I had no real insight into the detail of their projects I didn’t feel I was best placed to decide on the length of the presentations, although I made it clear that the longer time we had for presenting made for less time hacking! We settled for 12mins and I was flexible up to 15mins before I started to do the stand up and stare very hard at my watch thing.
I was fortunate enough to have a few hackers who felt comfortable and confident enough to give me a gentle prod to ensure I was doing the things that other hackathon organisers had done. This included telling them the criteria on which their projects would be judged: I hadn’t actually given that any thought! After chatting with the judges and doing some online research we came up with five criteria:
- Impact to the end user
- Readiness to be taken to the next stage
- Response to brief*
*we had pitches from homelessness organisations who needed help, so this was quite specific to this particular format of a hackathon.
Another suggestion that came from an attendee was that I should ensure that all the groups had everything they needed, in terms of support, as we approached the deadline. This was a great suggestion and it allowed me to parachute a designer into a team for 30mins to improve the look and feel of the project.
5. You are not going to be that busy during the hackathon
A hackahton doesn’t have the stakeholders that I am used to dealing with at my other events. There are no speakers, exhibitors or performers. I spend most of my time at an event dealing with my stakeholders. The number one most important stakeholder is the attendee. A hackathon does have attendees, but they are a different breed of attendee: (attendee 2.0.) they don’t need any handholding at all. To be honest, it’s an easy job being an attendee at a hackathon. There aren’t 20 different sessions or loads of speakers to remember and attendees don’t have to navigate confusing exhibition floor plans.
I think I spent most of my time cleaning up glasses and refilling the coffee machine. For an experienced event organiser this was a very strange experience. I didn’t feel that I actually needed to be there! This may sound weird but I was more anxious and nervous at this event than I’ve been at any other event I’ve organised. I think keeping busy stops me worrying.
Once the event is under way, my advice for any first time hack organiser would be to see yourself as a host or hostess rather than an organiser. Sure there is some sorting out to do but it’s not really going to test the skills of an experienced event organiser. Use the time to stay on top of the social media posts and check in regularly with the attendees.
6. You are going to be busy after the hackathon
The hackathon is an event in itself. It has a physical space and a start and an end time. However it is an event that should last long past the Sunday afternoon. My work has really just started. Now I am sure not eveyone who organises a hackathon will take the same approach I have, but I see my “organiser” role as making sure that the projects move to the next step. We had three winners:
- A communications platform to allow street volunteers (who look in and look after rough sleepers in Edinburgh and Glasgow) to communicate more efficiently. It is also public facing and allows the public to alert the street teams to rough sleepers.
- An excess food matching platform that allows homeless organisations to collect excess food from a variety of suppliers and providers and
- A signposting app for homelessness services in Scotland.
Three brilliant ideas eh? But they all need some support to move them to the next stage. And that’s where I see my role now. I invited the homelessness organisations and the attendees and I put them together at my event. But I have to keep things moving. I am also trusted with the development budget that we included in the prize fund. I have to allocate that too. Now these aren’t the core skills you would expect of an event organiser but they are crucial to make sure this event achieves its objectives, and this is certainly the role of an organiser.
My job now is to help these projects make the difference that I know they can.
7. A hackahton is about building more than apps, websites and prototypes, it’s about building a community
Most events burn brightly but then fade out. A hackathon has the potential for a longer burn. They can be the catalyst for a community built around the subject matter. Our event brought together a very disparate group of people from across Scotland who were all interested in supporting homelessness organisations to end homelessness and rough sleeping and that’s about all that they had in common. But that’s more than enough and should form the very basis of a community.
We now have a list of 50 people who want us to keep in touch and we also have a communications platform (the wonderful nooQ) that they have access to for another six months. We can do a few things to prod the community into action but we know that they will start to do things themselves. We certainly expect to see most of these people again!
Overall the experience was really rewarding, fun, enjoyable and exciting. I would certainly recommend that every event organiser should organise a hackathon as it will add a new perspective on the other events you run.
If you are considering running a Hackathon in support of homelessness or rough sleeping in Scotland please get in touch as we have loads of detailed advice and also some seed funding to help make your event happen.