The discussion “are (civic) hackathons/app contest useful/stupid?” is back! Since they are gaining more visibility, we find more and more people to criticize these activities… by only looking at one facet. Since I frequently organize and participate to hackathons and sometimes asked to provide some input about hackathon organization, here is my contribution to this discussion (a second post will come about app contest)
Here are, from my point of view, the various benefits (facets) that I see and that I experienced with hackathons. My main experience is about “civic” hackathons, but many items can apply to any type of hackathon.
- Learning: For me hackathon is all about learning. I discovered and started to use most of the technologies I use today during hackathons. And I taught new tech to people and even helped some people to write their first line of code during hackathons. Coding is perceived to be increasingly important and might become as useful as word processing is today. From this point of view, hackathon is a place for many people to start their journey in the world of self-teaching basic scripting skills. Whether the focus is direct learning (e.g. presenting an API) or indirect learning, competency building is a key element to hackathon and one of the reasons why people continue to attend.
- Community building: One of the targets of a hackathon is to build a community around a topic, say open data or more generally civic coding. This sense of community can bring you farther than you think. Most of the people I work with now, I met them or at least we started doing serious things together during hackathons. That’s where were written the first line of ZoneCone (not by myself) which was later transformed in a government-backed project, Open511. My main developer on the project is the one who did the first lines of code for ZoneCone. Simply put: it changed my life!
- Community mixing: We see more and more themed civic hackathons: environment, law, culture, etc. The idea is to bring communities who usually do not work together but need each other. There again, working on concrete cases is probably the best option to discover what those communities can do together. I have to say that this part is difficult to get right but we are getting better at it.
- Collaboration initiation: In the same direction as community building, team building. I know some people who started a hackathon project together and ended up starting a company together. If naysayers would have looked at that specific hackathon, nothing was produced, not even a complete app. BUT it indirectly created a start-up. As a consequence, one should not only look at the direct outcomes of a hackathon.
- Commercial product development: The main motto against hackathon is “it doesn’t create sustainable apps”. Maybe we should stop focusing on apps. At least on the iphone app model. The tool we are building with my collaborators is mainly targeting government. Another app developed during a hackathon at SF has been used by Muni. I would not be surprised to learn that some demo/pilot developed during hackathon have been integrated in large software. So yes, no Facebook was developed during hackathon, but there are some examples of valid and sustainable product developed there… with a high reject rate, like in any business creation.
- Tools for the community: It’s not because you do not sell your app 9.99$/install that it’s worthless. Civic hackathon is the occasion to build tool for the good. For an incoming EcoHack, we are gathering what is needed to build something like 596Acres in Montréal. I have set up a bike trip planner because it was missing. All this is free, but it has some value and it is sustainable like many non-tech community projects.
- Enhance tools/products: Hackathon is also the occasion to enhance existing product. Some teams are improving their civic application from event to event. And it can be initiated by anybody, for any type of product, like the Web Experience Toolkit started by the Government of Canada and which will host its second CodeFest beginning of August.
- Recruit for a project. Tools always want to be bigger (See Zawinski’s law of Software development) so projects, mainly community projects, always try to recruit more people and hackathons are a perfect place for that!
- Close the gov/citizen gap: Both elected people and civil servant frequently come to hackathon so it’s the perfect place for them to understand better what tech savvy citizens wants and what tech can do. On the other hand, tech-savvy can understand a little more how the city works, what the constrains are, etc. It is not rare to hear people discussing about by-laws or usually dull topic during and after hackathons.
- Technological advocacy: Most of the participants of civic hackathons believe that technology has a role to play to enhance how our cities and countries are working. Hackathons are the perfect occasion to spin and demo ideas and get some coverage. The demo might not live more than the day, but the idea behind could become something 1 or 2 years later.
- Discovery process: 15 years ago, people were saying that nobody could make money on the Internet. Even today, the business model of some major online players remains dubious. But most of us cannot really live without the Internet. Same with hackathons: the discovery process for civic apps is long and some ideas are difficult to monetize as pure web-based companies was in the old days, but it’s by trying that we discover new frontiers.
- Show how structureless development is working: Many people are coming to hackathon because they like how things are done (and some companies work like that every day…) At some point, hackathons are also there to show to companies and governments other ways to work, ways to break silos, ways to prototype, etc.
So yes, a tiny tiny number of apps become some sort of products and a fraction of these become profitable, if any. And no, hackathons are not the ultimate panacea to save the world from self-disintegration. But if you think that any of the items above can be useful for your city, your community, your company, and if people are willing to come, then you might have a reason to do a hackathon. After all, it’s the participation that does the hackathon, not what pundits or critics have to say about it.