Hosting a Covid-proof hackathon

by Gareth Platt,

27 October 2020

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Group of people using laptops for a hackathon

Given all the restrictions of coronavirus, one might think that an Hackathon is now an endangered species. After all, these events are designed to bring people together in a physical location, and forge a sense of community in pursuit of a common goal.

In fact, Covid-19 has inspired a new wave of virtual Hackathons, created with the express purpose of finding solutions to the current crisis. One such event, held in March at the height of the pandemic, lasted 48 hours and attracted an amazing 43,000 people – making it the most successful Hackathon in history.

With so many people looking for solutions, there’s never been a better time to get hacking. And in this article, we’re going to show you how to create your own online hackathon, which will fit the current zeitgeist and help you make progress despite the current crisis.

What theme should my virtual hackathon carry?

Contrary to what some believe, a hackathon is not simply a group of digital geniuses gathering in a room to crack a technological challenge. But in fact, it can cover practically anything: even prior to Covid-19, people were organising Hackathons for everything from climate change to racial inequality

So it’s important we give our event a clear theme, which summarises our objectives and creates a sense of belonging for those taking part.

Eilidh Southren, a Google engineer and Hackathon coach who has helped organise events across the UK and Europe, says: “themes aren’t a requirement, but they can be a great addition to a Hackathon. They can give focus to the challenges, and help bring together groups of like-minded people. 

“Themes can be area-focused, such as solving problems in Healthcare or Environmentalism, or more laid back – there was an entirely food-themed hackathon called Bon Hackétit last month!”

When choosing your theme, make sure it’s relevant to the specific challenge you and/or your stakeholders will face in your virtual hackathon. So if, say, you want to find ways to be more productive in the post-Covid environment, you can ask your teams to create ideas or solutions in this area (as Microsoft did recently). 

Remember: the clearer your theme, the easier it will be to promote via your website and social media.

Ok, I’ve got a theme. What about my attendees?

Well one of the great things about a virtual hackathon is that we can invite anyone, from any background; those with children and other responsibilities are more likely to be able to attend.

It’s important to decide, right at the outset, whether you want to keep your event internal or open it up to outside experts. An internal event can build your company’s innovation culture, and build a sense of community. An external hackathon, by contrast, can enhance your reputation and expose your brand to a wider audience.

Try and include a mix of people among your invitees. Even if it’s a tech-focused event, a successful hackathon will also include project managers, business developers and other stakeholders with a direct interest in the problem being solved.

What technologies should I use?

Essentially, you can run an online hackathon using very basic technology. 

Carlos Mateos, director of the COM Salud digital agency and a man who has organised several Hackathons in Spain, tells us he is about to host a virtual hackathon using Zoom – a technology which is free and available to everyone. This is just one of a plethora of virtual conferencing tools at your disposal: Microsoft Teams and Google Meet provide equally quick and easy ways to connect people online. 

But it’s also worth considering the growing band of virtual hackathon tools, which are designed specifically to energize this kind of event. For example, the platform provided by Hubilo includes a virtual leaderboard for your teams to keep track of their progress, and personal meeting rooms where hackers can break out and compare notes.

By using a specialist online hackathon platform, you can give your attendees the freedom to form their own teams online and submit their projects; at the same time, you can monitor their activity at a glance.

Eilidh Southren says: “The main considerations are some sort of video conferencing system and a messaging system to share announcements and event updates, like Slack or Discord. 

“Due to Covid-19 and the huge numbers of people working from home, we’ve seen a surge in the availability and quality of software to aid remote working, which translates excellently for Hackathon use too.”

But how do I foster engagement?

Well, here’s where it can get a bit tricky. If your hackathon doesn’t have a physical location, it’s easy for people to forget about it, or think it’s less important than a physical event.

Make sure you send all your attendees a calendar invite well in advance, and keep promoting the event via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, so everyone knows this is a big deal. When reaching out to your hackers, we’d advise you to over-communicate; the more you can tell them about your goals and ground rules, the better (particularly in a virtual hackathon, where there’s plenty of scope for things to go wrong on the day).

Indeed, rules and structure are crucial to the success of any hackathon. And one particularly important aspect is how you structure your team(s): hackers tend to thrive on adopting a particular role within a unit. So, when you’re promoting to your would-be attendees, make sure you give each team a leader, and a series of specific roles.

On the other hand, it’s important to be creative. Kooky gifts and merchandise are a great way to create interest around your upcoming virtual hackathon. For example, Okta, a cloud identity specialist which organises internal hackathons on a biannual basis, recommends sending t-shirts out to attendees in advance. Hats, t-shirts and even phone chargers can also provide a real buzz, without costing the earth.

Just before the event, think about recording a video message that you can play at the start: this is a great way to remind attendees of the goals, rules and rewards of your online hackathon when it kicks off.

What about networking. That’s important, right?

Yep, this is something that we haven’t touched on so far. And it’s really important. 

As Carlos Mateos says, “people don’t just come to hackathons to solve technical problems. They also come to network and make new contacts. So it’s important we continue to offer them, even when the event is virtual.

“We’re currently planning a virtual Hackathon in light of the Covid-19 restrictions, and we are exploring technologies that facilitate networking at our event.”

Some of the virtual hackathon platforms we mentioned earlier will include networking functionality; in fact, a number online event tools now include matchmaking algorithms which bring like-minded attendees together.

To make the most of the networking potential of your event, we’d recommend you set aside a certain amount of time specifically for networking. Even if your teams are in the middle of a sprint, they’ll appreciate the chance to meet and connect with their fellow hackers.

On a slightly tangential note, another great tip is to appoint a series of mentors ahead of the event, and assign each of them a newcomer to guide and assist. This provides networking opportunities for both mentor and mentee, and helps your hackers learn new skills.

Ok, but who do I get to judge my event?

This is really important. Look at almost any successful hackathon and you’ll find a good judging panel, full of respected people who are relevant to the hackers.

Just like your theme, the composition of your judging panel is very much up to you. But we’d strongly advise you to create a diverse profile, in all aspects of the term. And even if your hackathon is internal-only, try to include some external figures who are experts in your theme.

And finally… How do I reward my winning team(s)?

Think about your attendees here. Some more technical hackers may prefer a tech-focused gift (like the PlayStation 4 consoles given out at previous editions of the TechCrunch disrupt hackathon),  but this kind of gift won’t resonate with everyone. 

Think about the world we’re currently living in, and what it allows. Cinema tickets, for example, may not be the best idea right now; in contrast, Amazon vouchers, or a pass to one of the many subscription services we’re currently bingeing, might be just what your hackers need.

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