Hackathons keep happening in spite of a rather mixed reputation – ranging from awesome-super fun-sexy to a complete waste of time. They can be either. The good news is which experience you have at the ceehack.org is largely up to you.
One Hack-Hater recently described hackathons as similar to Habitat for Humanity showing up at an empty lot with a pile of wood and tools, telling the volunteers to build a house, and then going home. Not a bad description. Many hackathons operate on a principle of open design that is democratic to a fault and believes if you throw smart NGO people and technologists into a room for a weekend with a lot of caffeine, then their skills and good intention will spin gold through something alchemists would be proud of.
Perhaps it is not surprising that Hackathons, which follow the above formula often disappoint. But they don’t have to if both NGOs and technologists do some thinking ahead of time and keep their expectations in check.
Clearly, as awesome as technology is, it still has some limitations, especially in terms of what can be created in a weekend. Can you build something super cool in a few hours? Sure. Is it likely to be totally new base code or super complex? Less sure. So, ask yourself, what would you need to know to produce meaningful work over a weekend?
If you are joining a team of programmers working on a project you would probably want to know the skills of other team members in order to organize time effectively, a very clear description of the proposed project, its users, the interaction model, how others have tried to solve this problem, what tools/resources might be available, and how (assuming the new tech works) it will make the world a better place.
You can prepare some of this yourself. ceehack.org has posted a list of projects that will be up for hacking. Check them out. Do some homework. Think about these ideas in tech start-up terms. What is the minimum viable product? What are the simplest, most elegant ways to ensure successful interactions between the technology and user? Has someone built something like this that you can rip off? Pull some relevant code libraries from github, which you can talk about with the project initiators at the Hack. After a little bit of listening, learning and negotiation, your two days may be enough to mash together some existing tools into something useful.
Your skills in all this extend beyond coding to helping social change leaders understand what is possible both at the hack and over a longer period of time. Come to the table as any good consultant would, prepared to discuss options and improve upon the ideas with your unique knowledge, learn and have fun coding instead of spending the weekend doing your homework and not getting to done.
For some examples to get you started, check out www.hackerhelper.org and see you at the Hack!
Chris Worman is the Director of Program Development at www.TechSoupGlobal.org and has been working in civil society since 1998. Through TechSoup projects of Chris’ design (primarily the ReStart Challenges), more than 4 million citizens in Romania, Czech Republic and Slovakia, Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina have been exposed to an intensely local dialog about the role of the citizen in nominal democracies.