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How to run or join a hackathon

A breakout session at Open Source Open Society 2015 lead by GovHackNZ organiser Mike Riversdale gave participants a quick taste of what to expect from a hackathon.

Government hackathons are now regular events in New Zealand and Australia. There are plans to hold them this year in Auckland, Wellington, Whangarei and Dunedin.

Riversdale says despite the name the events are not about hacking government systems but are “a clever solution to a tricky problem”. They are not just central government data, but also local and regional governments.

He says there are five elements to organising a GovHack NZ event:

  1. You need to start by naming a hackathon time and place or people won’t turn up.
  2. Next you need a logo. Riversdale says this a home for stuff, it leads naturally to a website and provides a rallying point for a community so you can do stuff.
  3. There needs to be a purpose. This is naturally wide-ranging and therefore is likely to sound bland. The planned Wellington July GovHack it is: “Do stuff with government data structured around life events”. Life events is the wide-ranging theme, beneath that there will be streams such as “leaving school”, “getting a first job” or “becoming a parent”.
  4. You need to get people along. Not just developers but a range of people. Riversdale says: “At Wellington he hopes to get non-geeks; creative people, film makers, subject matter experts, people who need to come along who say ‘that life event, I know all about that’”.
  5. You also need a suitable  venue. GovHackNZ has snared the bottom floor of the MBIE building to host its Wellington event.

Riversdale also says you need mentors on hand. This can mean people who understand the data, the issues or the tool set.

Hackathon participanst bring their own tools with them. He says: “Typically they bring their own laptops. There will be internet, food and water and data.”

It’s common to inject an element of competition into an event. This might involve splitting people into teams and letting them create something. One approach would mean taking photos of their output, getting people to vote on the various entries and hand out prizes.

A hackathon gets under way in earnest when someone says: “I think I have an idea….”.

At this stage people form into teams around the ideas. People can choose their own teams — some pre-arranged teams turn up at these events.

At the Open Source Open Society 2015 conference, Riversdale organised a sample 40-minute exercise compressing what would normally be two day or two days and one evening process.

During the exercise people appeared to stick with the teams on their tables. It’s common for people to arrive at GovHack as a pre-formed team.

He says serendipity is an important part of hackathons: “People can get caught up with their ideas. They say ‘I can’t believe anyone hasn’t thought of that before’. Often someone else has. There’s a danger teams at the event are embarking on similar projects.”

Often this is fixed just by people moving between teams and chatting to each other. If not, the facilitator will try what Riversdale calls ‘forced serendipity’. At the run-through he asked people to get up and move between tables to find out what is happening elsewhere.

“At the end of day one, we have to tell people to stop. That can be three or four-ish on Saturday. It can be later in the evening. Often people head off to the pub at this point. What’s important is to stop thinking about the problem and have a sleep”, he says.

When people come back on Sunday morning, people have often had breakthroughs overnight and get back into it.

Wrapping up is an important stage. Riversdale says you have to leave enough time for people to evaluate the output. Attendees need to tidy up afterwards, thank the sponsors and organise follow-ups.