Experimental Civics


Help! I’m going to a hackathon! | Beginner’s guide to hacking

You’ve just signed up for a hackathon or a friend has given you a ticket. Now what?

First of all, don’t panic. I know that it can be nerve-racking, but let’s define some terms for you and talk about why most folks go and what’s going to happen at a general level.

What is a hackathon?

Everyone has their own specific definition of what a hackathon actually is, but this is my version: A hackathon is essentially a design sprint that can last a few hours to a few weeks. The goal is basically to innovate and create fun solutions to problems.

Hackathon 101 Workshop | Photo Credit: Ben Carneiro

I direct civic hackathons, which are niche events where we focus on making strides towards solving specific community problems. There are also more general corporate and technology hackathons that allow participants to identify problems and generate solutions around a specific product or business idea.

Why host or attend hackathons?

Regardless of what your reason might be for attending a hackathon, it’s fine to admit that you have no idea what you are doing, or that this is a bad first date idea. Most folks go because they love the thrill of “hacking.” They love the challenge.

ATX Hack for Change 2016 | Photo Credit: ATX Hack for Change

For civic hackathons, it’s my goal to draw everyone in by having challenges that are submitted by civic champions (your neighbor, John; your teacher, Jill; basically anyone) and hacked by members.

My goal is to empower participants to play with their ideas on how to improve their local environment and redesign it to become more inclusive and functional. Most participants attend because our causes have an impact on their lives and/or because they are looking to be part of a fun community playground.

What happens at a hackathon?

This might be a no-brainer, but every event has an entirely different schedule. All you really need is your technology and your ideas. I would also recommend reading through the challenges in advance to see what piques your interest.

The first portion of a hackathon is often a great chance to network with other hackers and potential civic champion leads. Learn about their different projects and find ways to meet more people that are excited by your ideas.

ATX Hack for Change 2017 | Photo Credit: ATX Hack for Change Volunteer

Beyond the initial introduction, there is usually a section near the beginning that discusses the different challenges. In some events, like the civic hackathons I’ve hosted, there’s actually a pitching section where project champions talk about their different project ideas. I tend to leave things very open and unstructured so that hackers can decide what they prefer to work on.

Hacking in this sense is essentially utilizing your skills to assist with the team’s problem-solving effort. Regardless of your unique skills, you work as a team to build out the different aspects of your project. It could be a highly technical initiative or just a brainstorm on strategy, depending on the issue at hand.

ATX Hack for Change 2017 | Photo Credit: ATX Hack for Change Volunteers

What else do I need to know?

It’s important to take breaks, check in with mentors or organizers to get the help that you might need and have fun with your fellow hackers. I can say with confidence that you will meet a ton of interesting people with a ton of different skills from you, and some will share the same drive on your project or the same passion for your cause. Enjoy the moment to be with your fellow humans, creating solutions to difficult problems.

That’s basically all the introduction you need. Go with the flow of the event and enjoy the interactions that happen. Hackathons are a tremendous surge of energy and creativity, with many diverse groups of people in the same place. They are a hotbed of fun problem-solving meant to jumpstart conversations and action within the community.

Happy hacking!

Want to host a hackathon or learn more, contact me through: experimentalcivics.io and let’s talk.

ATX Hack for Change 2017 | Photo Credit: ATX Hack for Change Volunteers

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