What is the point of a hackathon?

- Posted in Uncategorized - 2 comments

These days I am getting all these e-mails to join hackathons about certain topics. I wonder what the organisations that set up hackathons are actually hoping to achieve.

They are usually set up by government funded organisations (like MIC and VRT) and by big government funded companies (Proximus, Bpost)

I once participated in Apps for Ghent. I thought it was a nice idea, and I had fun building something quick in an afternoon. We made an app called Doctors in Ghent which, now that I think about it, is totally useless, because a directory of doctors should not be city specific, much less contained in an “app”.

The event mostly showed how bad the public data was at that point. I think things have improved in recent years thanks to the efforts of some great people (thanks Bart and Pieter!)

But anyway, back to hackathons. Why would I go to a hackathon? The only reason I can think of is to meet new interesting people, but in that case, why don’t you just a) throw a party or b) host coding nights where people can meet and work together on meaningful projects?

The people at 10to1 used to do these coding nights and that was pretty cool.

What I dislike about hackathons is that they always seem to involve the same structure in which meaningful work is impossible: find a random group of people, brainstorm about an idea, and start coding it. In a single day.

Developing an idea into something meaningful takes months. Actually doing something real takes years. So why would you sit down and try to do something in a single day?

To me, a lot of this smells like organisations that don’t really know what to do with their (government) money, who have an internal brainstorm session about how to “innovate“ which leads to somebody coming up with a hackathon to “get people to innovate”.

I recognize that a lot of connections have been made through hackathons, startup weekends and even startup buses, but isn’t the innovation aspect of it a bit of a sham?


  • Pieter-Jan Pauwels says:

    I think the bubble that says ‘hackathons are innovative’ has bursted a long time ago. Same as the one assuming it ‘will provide us with a bunch of finished products’. If that indeed were true, every web-agency would go bankrupt instantly and Digipolis would be a shell company. So I do agree that good ideas take time, reflection, efforts and so on and that hackathons are no solution for that.

    But that doesn’t necessarily make hackathons irrelevant. Like Pieter Colpaert said on Twitter, Apps for Ghent transformed into something different. It’s a way for the City of Ghent to show the new data they have, to see what issues live amongst its citizen that they’re trying to solve with technology. To have a snapshot moment where the city hopes to inspire some citizens to continue to work with this data, be critical about the code quality or lack of certain data, let the city know what needs are still unfulfilled, etc… but in an engaging way. It’s citizen participation on a small scale which in my opinion is still a huge unexplored field.

  • Matthias says:

    Two comments

    (1) You are talking about a type of hackaton: the one who’s goals are either too vague, or are – worst and luckily only a minority – organised because of downright self-centric motives. When you receive an invite, you assume that the hackathon should be organised by an organisation rooted in a tech culture/community. When hackathons were a novel concept, this would generally hold true. Today, the concept of a hackathon is being repurposed by PR departments or organisations that are not necessarily strongly connected to tech. If you don’t already have a connection with a community of tinkerers, makers, developers,… chances are your hackathon will turn out to be nothing more then a sterile exercise.

    (2) When looking to a hackathon through the lens of utilitarianism, should you participate? In most cases: no. But people also partake in them because they feel challenged, want to meet new people, get out of their comfortzone, get exposed to new insights and experiences,… Or they just want to have Good Old Fun. That’s why you would participate to something like Apps for Ghent. Another great example is Ludum Dare (ludumdare.com) which challenges you to build an indie game in 2 days within a given theme. Its’ popularity is largely due to the community that has formed itself around the event.

    This blogpost shows imho an issue with the concept ‘hackathon’: as organisations try to organise them outside a tech context, the original idea gets tainted. Result: the very target audience of techies/hackers becomes even harder to reach.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *