Here’s What Makes for a Successful Hackathon

Author: Corin Hirsch       

The two-year-old Cleveland Medical Hackathon

Jenine P. Humber, CGMP, GVEP, is no slouch when it comes to meetings. As special-event coordinator for the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) at Harvard University, Humber has access to some of the most technologically advanced venues in the United States. She is both a Certified Government Meeting Professional and a Government Virtual Events Producer.

Still, in 2013, when SAO asked her to organize a hackathon as part of the upcoming .Astronomy 5 conference, Humber felt like she was suddenly on unfamiliar ground. “I was scared out of my mind when this first dropped in my lap,” she said.

Since breaking onto the scene in 1999, hackathons have conjured images of dim rooms of glassy-eyed developers slouched over screens, working feverishly for 24 hours or more toward some obscure techno-logical solution. Even as recently as 2013, when Humber was first called on to put one together, their presence was somewhat alien at meetings and conferences.

But four years later, hackathons have bled into almost every industry and sector, from health care to agriculture to human trafficking, with their ubiquity at meetings and conferences spiking in tandem with the growing focus on participatory sessions and attendee collaboration. Last year alone, “hacks” at meetings ranged from boosting early-childhood education to improving the fan experience at Cleveland Indians games. A hackathon at Cisco Live US 2016 produced a solution for collecting data from threatened honeybee colonies; it took place in a room decked out in oversized faux honeycombs. A worldwide 2016 “Fishackathon” led to a solution for helping reduce populations of the invasive Asian carp in the Great Lakes. For .Astronomy 5 — hosted by Harvard’s Seamless Astronomy group, made up of astronomers, astrophysicists, engineers, and other scientists — the challenges that were addressed were decidedly technical: working out kinks in observatory software, sound measurements, and instrumentation.

Especially for associations and other mission-based organizations, the basic premise of a hackathon — identify a challenge, sic competing teams on that challenge, reward the winning team, implement their solution — has potentially boundless applications. “When you apply a brain trust to an association, and these members only interact once or twice a year, if that — how can you take that brain trust to really ignite some great ideas?” said Jamie Murdock, vice president of sales for Experient and the leader of a mini hackathon on meetings-related challenges at PCMA Convening Leaders 2017 this past January. “Every organization gets hungry for new ideas, and they want members to buy in to the ideas. Hackathons are a good way to accomplish both.”

Here are four hacks to get you started:


When Humber was planning the .Astronomy 5 hackathon, she quickly learned the cornerstone of a successful hack: It needs to be driven by a well-defined, reasonable challenge. “Hackathons are really about community and collaboration, and for us, it was also about observatory software,” Humber said. “Astronomy is so vast that we really had to hone in on certain things. I would encourage others not to have too wide-ranging of a topic — narrow it down.”

At “The Big Hackathon” at Campus Party Brasil.

To make sure the hackathon’s chosen topics were not beyond the grasp of participants, who could pre-register for the 24-hour event via .Astronomy 5’s website, anyone who wanted to sign up was vetted. This eventually led to the first speed bump in the process. “The people that didn’t pre-register were bothersome for me as a planner, because it didn’t give me the chance to speak with senior scientists to see if they wanted that person to participate,” Humber said. “We turned a few people away only because what they were bringing to the table did not necessarily jive with what was being hacked. And because science and astronomy is so competitive, you absolutely had to make sure that you’re not letting in someone that you don’t want to share information with.”

At Campus Party Brasil 2017 (CPBR10) — an 8,000-attendee technology festival program — registrants for “The Big Hackathon,” a 100-hour event devoted to finding tech solutions for the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, had to be pared down to 300 active participants. “We had a very strict selection of who would participate,” said Ney Neto, director of business development and innovation for MCI in Sao Paulo, Brazil, “because we needed engineers and coders.”

For much shorter mini hackathons, the process might be more informal, including possibly being crowdsourced. At the Engaging Associations Forum 2016 in Ottawa, Ontario, deconstruction provided the starting point. “I thought it could be fun to use the hacking concept to tear apart or try to break something in order to put it back together again, in a better way,” said Doreen Ashton Wag-ner, organizational catalyst for Greenfield Services Inc., and the mini hackathon’s organizer. Her team polled attendees before the conference about “pain points,” which the hackathon’s 130 participants then honed down on-site.

“What I realized is that it’s difficult for most of us to break a concept versus an actual product or software,” Wagner said. “In association management especially, if a concept or strategy works, we tend to leave it alone. We’re not inclined to want to break things to improve them, because there’s not enough time and there’s often too much else to fix. So in the planning stages, we soon decided to work from association business problems.”


For traditional hackathons such as the one at .Astronomy 5, bandwidth needs can be enormous. “You have to be very specific with the conference center on what type of hack you’re having, so that they could update their bandwidth if they need to,” Humber said, “because you use a great deal of it on hack days, as there’s lots of live information going back and forth.” .Astronomy 5 took place at Micro-soft’s New England Research and Development (NERD) Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a soaring, technologically driven site with more-than-ample bandwidth.

But tech needs can go beyond internet access. The room set should be conducive to both generating and sharing ideas. For the last two years, the HIMSS (Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society) Innovation Center on the fourth floor of Cleveland’s Global Center for Health Innovation has hosted the Cleveland Medical Hackathon, which brings together physicians, nurses, public-health workers, researchers, entrepreneurs, and engineers to work on solutions to challenges in the health-care space. Limited to 200 participants, the hackathon takes place in the 30,000-square-foot Innovation Center, with views of the city, as well as in an open area that is broken into pods to facilitate team-work. “People are actually soldering and doing some really interesting work in that room,” said John Paganini, senior manager of interoperability initiatives for HIMSS North America and one of the hackathon’s organizers. “We also have a couple of video walls with massive screens on which they can demonstrate, present, and test their solutions, if they need to. We have touchscreens that they can use. The environment is very flexible, very adapt-able and unique.”

While meeting professionals aren’t likely to forget to feed their hackers, making sure the food and drink can actually get to them during a typical round-the-clock hackathon can be a logistical chal-lenge. “If you are going to have that space open after hours, you’re going to have to worry about security,” Humber said. “If you’re having food delivered, if you can have it at a certain time, can they come all night? All of those things have to be considered, and more, in creating a hack day.”


Whether it’s bringing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals to life, combating tenacious health-care problems, or coming up with better ideas for using big data at meetings, the goals of a hackathon can be a powerful motivator. But so is the promise of implementation.

At the Cleveland Medical Hackathon, where teams present their work in the form of PowerPoint pitches to a panel of C-suite-level judges, cash awards are offered to the winners — as is the chance to take their solutions to the next level. “We present [the winners] with the ability to live in an incubator with that team for a couple months to further their idea,” Paganini said, “in the interest of spurring economic development.” After the 2015 hack, the second-place team, which focused on fighting infant mortality via a tablet app called NEO+natal, was partnered with Cleveland Codes, a group of developers, “who took the app to the next level,” Paganini said. “That was really a good use in moving something forward that’s important for the city and infant mortality, as well as using the resources within the city to move it forward.”

For .Astronomy 5’s group of 48 hackers, solutions were peer-reviewed, and those that won were implemented — but winners were also given hoodies and Beats by Dre headphones. “It could be hoodies, it could be a charger,” Humber said. “Something small to just say thank you for participating.”

“People love to win,” Murdock said. During the hour-long “Convening Leaders Mini-Hackathon: Innovation Unleashed,” Murdock was impressed at how intensely his pen-and-paper-armed participants worked toward the humble prize: pairs of Bombas socks. “We’re all there for social stimulation, but if you add a significant prize, people just have momentum,” Murdock said. “I was giving away socks, and you would have thought it was a million dollars.”


At “The Big Hackathon” at Campus Party Brasil.

Prizes, bandwidth, and Red Bull do not come free. Fortunately, hackathons are rich with sponsorship opportunities. At the Cleveland Medical Hackathon, certain big-ticket items were donated by vendors, such as Arduino circuit boards offered by Intel. For an upcoming hackathon at the GameStop 2017 Conference and Expo — the first hackathon both for GameStop and for Judy Payne, CMP, GameStop’s director of meetings and travel — sponsorship is central to the plan. “We’ll reach out to our vendors to see who’s interested,” Payne said. “We’ll create the sponsorship package and send it to them, letting them know what type of exposure they can get, how many people they’ll be touching.”

“We’ll probably start with a dual sponsorship [model],” she added. “[Vendors] can either select a monetary amount, or they can come in and decide to bring in all the equipment. We’re really going to lean on the social aspect, too, and add some banners and e-banners to really make sure [sponsors] get a lot of exposure. We do as much as we can for our vendors, as cheaply as possible, to make sure that they feel like they get a good deal.”

For her first hackathon, Payne seems to have an intuitive sense of how to pay for it. “All associations are looking to expand their sponsorship foot-print,” Murdock said, “and this could be a way that a major sponsor comes in and fuels it and does the prize, and really puts their name on it. I think that’s critical, and if you think of it through that lens, internally, with your marketing people and your membership people, you can have a pretty cool outcome.”

Murdock is planning another mini hackathon this month, at Elevate, the annual conference of the California Society of Association Executives (CalSAE). And since .Astronomy 5, Humber has gone on to organize a smaller, eight-hour event at Event Horizon Telescope 2016. She’s now among the converted. “Hack days are a really good networking tool, and I’m so glad I was able to do it, because now I know that I can,” Humber said. “Because once you get through one, you can get through another and another.”

And Tap Those Influencers

During “The Big Hackathon,” a five-day event at Campus Party Brasil 2017 in Sao Paulo earlier this year, 1,300 registrants applied for 300 slots in a hackathon devoted to finding tech solutions to bolster the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. For MCI’s Ney Neto, the biggest challenge was finding the right number of coders and developers to serve as group mentors. “You cannot ensure that the event participants will be technically capable of developing solutions on their own,” Neto said. Because it can be difficult to find well-trained coders, Neto always pinpoints five to 10 influencers who can reach out to the developer community to recruit them for Campus Party’s hackathon. “Bring in someone who is very engaged in the ecosystem of developers and coders,” Neto said, “because it is difficult to engage them — but we need them to develop these solutions.”

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