Wikipedia defines a hackathon as “an event in which computer programmers and others involved in software development and hardware development, including graphic designers, interface designers and project managers, collaborate intensively on software projects in competition with other teams”. Stan Bogdanov and Rachel Isaac-Menard (presenting via video) described how Adelphi University organized a “Hack the Library” event.
Hackathons are also known as “hackfests”, “codefests”, “makeathons”, or “techfests”. They occur over a short period (usually 24-48 hours), and involve intense collaboration on a common goal or specific topic. To “hack” has had negative connotations in the past, but it has come to mean something different now—being creative and innovative to create something new. Benefits of hackathons include:
- Learning in an intense manner and in context, often as much as in an entire traditional course,
- Earning (often prizes or rewards are given),
- Networking with like-minded individuals and connecting with people who are interested in similar topics, and
- Contributing to the topic and teaching fellow classmates.
Libraries can benefit from hackathons too:
- They can get ideas for problem solving tools (find a book, communicate with different departments, etc.),
- They can engage with students, and
- They can market themselves as a place where you can go to do fun things. When we think of games, we think of fun, and when we think of learning, we think of work. The library can put things into a different perspective for participants.
The Adelphi Library sponsored a hackathon this year—see its web page. Here is one of their marketing posters:
Bogdanov shared his thoughts on organizing and running a hackathon:
- Get both internal and external buy-in from administration, IT, legal, graphic design, and computer science. Create a legal waiver so the university can use the results afterwards.
- Make sure you have wi-fi, power supplies, etc. in the event room. Reserve the room as early as possible, and consider dates carefully; don’t schedule a hackathon near other events like exams, holidays, etc. Try to find alternate venues in case problems arise with the first one selected.
- Establish a budget as early as possible, and get external sponsorship from both library and external organizations.
- Get prizes. The best ones are technological products (smart watches, etc.). Try not to get them too far in advance so they won’t become obsolete. Set a sufficient budget for the prizes.
- Pre-event marketing is critical to get students to participate. Get creative. Ask the graphic design department to create publicity materials. Capitalize on successes and do post-event marketing, and show photos of what happened to generate enthusiasm for the next event. Put a banner on the website after the event.
- Food is big draw for students. Involve the school’s caterer. Get pizza, coffee, and snacks.
- Recruit volunteers and judges from the library and a diverse set of departments.
- Managing it all: create a chart to show due dates, who does what.
- Build a core team and involve it early in the planning stages.
At the conclusion of the hackathon, the student participants were required to give a presentation on their idea and app regardless of how finished it was. Each presentation was strictly limited to 5 minutes to keep the competition fair, which caused the students to learn how to present the idea and make the “sale”.
Bogdanov suggested consulting Hacker League.org to obtain further useful information on hackathons.