Note on Hackathons

The below summary was created to help those unfamiliar with hackathons understand the variety of options in an evolving hackathon scene.  Outline / Summary:

– Hacking predates Formal Hackathons by many decades. 1st hack 1958. 1st use of the term hackathon (hack + marathon) in 1999.
– Hackathons are expanding beyond Software Development into Data Analysis, Hardware (and even into non-tech areas)
– Corporations, academia, and governments have different reasons for running hackathons.
– Although weekend hackathons are the most popular, some contests occur over several weeks to provide for deeper dives into projects
– A few online hackathons, or contests, have sprung up including Kaggle and DrivenData.
– There have also been Global competitions around issues such as climate change.
– Non-Coders, such as “Subject Matter Domain Experts” are occasionally Invited to Participate
– The advent of new tools, such as Tableau, are making it easier for non-coders to explore data and create apps.

Hacking predates Formal Hackathons by several decades.

  • Hackers:  The term Hacking was invented at MIT in the 1950’s.  Hence, ever since then individuals have been hacking on whatever interests them!   In the early days, hacking was mostly done within universities, and in the 1970’s with mini/home computers “hobbyists” joined in the fun.  [The story of early days of the computer industry can be read in Stephen Levy’s 1985 book Hackers, or here as free ebook].
  • Boston Computer Society: The Boston Computer Society began in 1974, and over a couple decades grew worldwide to about 100 Groups and 40,000 members.   Meetup is similar to the BCS in that there were workshops, though the BCS appears to have had more corporate involvement.  On a historic note, the BSC hosted many companies, including Apple in 1984.   Although the BSC ended in 1996, some groups, such as Linux, that was formed in 1994, are still ongoing.  Other groups, such as Java, re-emerged on Meetup, and along with the PhP and Python groups helped lay a new foundation.
  • Homebrew Computer Club:  Infamous for its role in Apple’s history.   Existed from 1975 to 1986.  Yes, its surprising it ended in 1986.  Have not looked as to what followed…
  • Meetup: Today, among the hundreds of Meetup Tech groups there are many local groups related to hacking:

Hackathons are expanding beyond software development into data analysis, back to hardware, and even into non-tech areas.

  • Software: Hackathons historically have had coding as a central activity (this going back to the 1960’s, 1970’s, etc. In the 2000’s, hacking has mostly meant creating a website or mobile app.   StartUp Weekends became popular a few years back.  At these events both website mockups or basic mobile app would be considered/called “Startups”.
  • Data Analysis and Visualization:  A handful of hackathons have tracks for participants to create insights from data. Offline Datathons, or Data Jams, where the focus is primarily/only analytics, are less frequent.  Data contests also occur online such as Kaggle or DrivenData.
  • Hardware and Maker hackathons, including the Internet of Things, are becoming mainstream. A list of local maker spots can be found here: Hardware / Maker Locations. And there are some contests

Creating / innovating is a common thread across hackathons. However, private and public Hackathons are held for different reasons:

  • Government: Many government organizations have “domain” expertise (energy, transportation, housing, etc.);  however have limited resources (especially relative to the amount of data that now exists).  As such hackathons are way to get help.  Most government hackathons are open to the public.
  • Some Companies will run internal hackathons; while others use external hackathons to recruit and/or promote their product or API (Application Programming Interface), which in turn may drive more customers to their business. EBAY was the first company to use APIs as a business strategy, and in this case developers create marketplace apps. A great local example of API promotion via hackathons is EchoNest which hosts “Music Hack Day” for which many companies promote their APIs, and from which a lot of cool music apps have been created.
  • Universities: Today, more and more universities are holding hackathons; as well as creating startup incubators; however many of these are only for current students.  Inasmuch this is an academic bullet-point, there are researchers who study hackathons.

Non-coders are Occasionally Invited to Participate

        • Cross-Functional Teams, which include non-coders who have “domain” knowledge (e.g. healthcare, energy, marketing), have become more popular. “Domain” is a term computer scientists use to describe any topic or field outside of coding. The increase in cross-functional teams is due in part that some hacks, though cool, end up being impractical.
        • GUI-Enabled A few hackathons will have different “tracks”; such as one for developers to make web apps; and another for data analysis or visualization (where software such as Tableau can be used). The recent HubHacks is a recent example of this format. A shout-out to Herb Susmann who won. Herb had presented on Topic Models at last years Boston Data-Con.
        • Observer-Role: Some hackathons will have a “demo” hour at the end for folks who are just interested in seeing the hacks.
        • For “non-coders”, does attending a “coding-only” hackathon make sense??? One student weighs the pros/cons of attending here:  Non Computer Science Students at Hackathons