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How to run a Hackathon

Posted 4 weeks ago by Jane Adojutelegan
How to run a Hackathon

Hackathons are an opportunity for groups of people to combine their skills and ideas to solve problems together.

Participants need to be open-minded, collaborative, and passionate about the issue at hand to use the tools at their disposal and find a great solution to a big issue. As an organiser, you’ll need to make sure that the event runs smoothly and that everyone involved has all the information they need to succeed!

There are many different types of hackathons, where people of varying degrees of tech know-how and experience can participate! These could include “Hack Days”, like the ones we have at Marvel, where new ideas that have the potential to improve our platform are birthed over the course of a day, or others that can go over the span of a few days. Some can be run in real life, while others are online. There can be hackathons where people work as individuals, or within teams. Ideas can even be displayed as prototypes or theories, while in other cases as tangible, working, MVPs.

By the end of a hackathon, everyone involved has a greater understanding of the problem they are trying to address and has worked on a solution for it. Sometimes work done in hackathons has the potential to improve the quality of lives, or even save them!

So, why would you run one?

Well, there are many reasons why you would want to run a hackathon.

1. Socialising

The pandemic has been difficult for all of us for many reasons. The ‘new normal’ has limited opportunities to meet up with loved ones and make friends in the way we would before; opening up a need for people to socialise in other ways online or with some kind of physical distance.

Hackathons could be a great way for people who share values with one another to problem-solve in hopes of achieving a common goal - online, or offline! In some cases, it could even be a way to start new friendships on a foundation of shared interests and beliefs.

2. Improving processes

Every great startup is nothing without its team. Here at Marvel, we’re lucky enough to have some of the brightest and most innovative people in the design space whose skill-sets and passion are the driving force behind the product we see today.

All of us at Marvel want to see the platform thrive and have brilliant ideas on how to push the product to the next level.

From Marketing to Engineering, to Support and beyond, everyone has great ideas which have the potential to be impactful in the future.

To get everyone involved, we hold frequent “Hack Days”, where members of the entire team can come together to use their unique and varied skills to prototype new features or processes. Many of our best ideas have come from Hack Days, one of which being Handoff (https://marvelapp.com/blog/how-we-built-handoff/), which has now become one of our core features.

3. Learning

Depending on what your role in making the idea come to life is, there's a lot you can learn during a hackathon!

People interested in running their own startup can experience a shorthand version of building a product from ideation all the way to where it can be presented to investors or stakeholders. Some startups with hackathon origins have even become lucrative like Carousell, the Singapore-based startup, now being valued at over 900 Million USD in 2020.

Anyone who would like to improve the UX of a product can learn more about the issue at hand, the users’ pain points, and what the ideal user flow would be. It’s also an opportunity to flex your designer muscles and spec out something that impacts user behaviour in a short space of time.

There are also great opportunities for people who are new to tech to learn how to code or apply any knowledge they may have in a way that could be commercially viable in the future. Because of the collaborative nature of hackathons, there are also opportunities for novices to meet people who are more knowledgeable and learn from them.

4. Community interest

With all the benefits that come from being a participant in a hackathon, it's easy to see why it’s in the best interest of companies and organisations to host them.

As time moves on, we’re seeing more and more companies demonstrate their values and their ethics with the events that they host and the companies that they partner with. Hosting an event such as a hackathon could be a great way for a company or an organisation to use their resource to solve an important problem, while supporting the personal and professional growth and development of the people in their community.

Now that you’ve decided to run a hackathon, you’ll need to select a theme.

As the nature of hackathons revolve around problem-solving, many of the themes will be related to a particular problem that many people are facing. For example, the Fixathon (https://fixathon.io/), where we participated as “Team WorldKind”(https://medium.com/we-are-worldkind), is centred around finding a solution that combats the effects of climate change.

It’s also worthwhile to see if it’s possible to host a hackathon where the tools used are ringfenced, e.g. where participants can only build something with one programming language or software. One example of this could be building a prototype by only using the tools in Marvel! This is a great way to showcase innovative ways to work with these tools for others in the future.

There are also hackathons that take an existing solution and ask participants to improve it based on certain criteria.

Regardless of what the theme is, making sure that it’s been well-defined before the event means that users can come to the hackathon ready with some ideas on what they’ll be working on and how.

Pre-work

As we said earlier, there are different types of hackathons, which are held over different periods of time, and participants may (or may not) be working in groups.

For many hackathons though, participants will be told about the theme beforehand and are given the opportunity to work in a team.

Where this is the case, participants might need to think about doing the following before the hackathon takes place:
• researching the theme
• clearly defining the problems they’re looking to solve, and speccing out solutions
• finding teammates, and thinking about how to best use each person’s skills
• the tech limitations - what tech can be used, whether there are APIs available
• what could be possible to build during the hackathon event

It’s also worthwhile to note that as an organiser of the event, you’ll need to lay out the information for the participants so that they can do any pre-work necessary for the event!

For you, your prework will also be in the following

Marketing

This is necessary as your team will need to build excitement and anticipation amongst the participants. Working with social media for example could be a great way to do this. With social media, you can also use platforms like Meetup, to recruit like-minded people to judge the hackathon or even participate!

Prizes

It might be worthwhile to consider giving prizes, and partnering with great organisations who would be willing to add to your prizes!

Criteria

What is the criteria that the participants will need to meet before and during the hackathon, before the applicants and project can be considered?

It's important for the organisers to clearly define which problems they are looking to solve. This is because a lack of clarity in the brief that they output could confuse participants and delay any progress that they make. Defining the scope of the problem comprehensively will also ensure that the solutions that participants eventually come up with will be achievable to create within the time frame given to them.

Judges & Mentors

Great mentors or hackathon leaders are key as they’ll be able to encourage participants to dream big, while also showing them that whatever idea they have can be made within the timeframe given. This is because they have the expertise to be able to act as soundboards for the participants - checking in and making sure that their ideas are viable while showing them how to make the most of their resources.

Hacking

This is the part of the event where the team spend their time together and develop their idea

• While this is happening, your job as an organiser is to make sure that you help the team get the most out of the experience and create the best possible version of their idea within the defined timeframe.

Many hackathons are created because the organisers felt passionately about solving a particular issue, and it’s good to kick things off by using this passion to introduce things. It might be worthwhile to look at creating a presentation that explains the origins of the Hackathon, its sponsors and partners, the goals for the event and the criteria for each team need to meet to be successful.

It’s also a great time to explain that every participant has a very important role to play. This can be really encouraging for people if the event is their first foray into tech. Asking everyone, regardless of skillset, to bring their unique qualities to the table should also encourage people to explore creating clearly defined roles for each other during the event. This will ensure that they optimise the time they have focusing on different areas of the project. These roles can include:

You'll also need to have at least one point of contact for the participants during the day and make sure that the participants know who they can turn to if they need help with anything. This is useful because whoever is in this role will be trusted by the participants to help them with any issues that come up. This point of contact may be able to help them if there’s an issue with any of the tech, or if someone from the team needs a soundboard.

Time keeping is key! Many real-time event are held in spaces that have been rented out by the organisers, and will need to be out of the space by a particular time. There may also be special guests who’ll have other commitments, so it’s important to keep them in mind too! This is why it’s important to check in with participants, organisers and any hackathon stakeholders to make sure that they know timings, and won’t have any issues with keeping on schedule.

The schedule should be designed with productivity and wellbeing in mind! Remember to set aside time for teams to brainstorm, work on particular tasks, take breaks and socialise! If certain things can only be achieved in certain spaces, make sure that everyone has opportunity to access the spaces within the timeframe of the event.

Allowing participants to create a rapid prototype would be incredibly helpful to them as they can quickly validate ideas, see whether their idea can actually solve the problem they're working on before spending resource building it, and easily create multiple iterations of the prototypes over time which are influenced by the feedback given by teammates and testers.

Here’s an example of a prototype for a chat bot created in Marvel!
http://bit.ly/36d8dde
Creating a prototype in Marvel is great for hackathons as the team can:

Presenting

Finally, it’ll be time to present the idea to the judges! On top of creating great prototypes, Marvel can be used for creating presentations to show off what’s been built at the end of the hackathon!

A great presentation needs to demonstrate the following:

• Insight:
This gives context to the issue to show the current status of the problem and how it’s affecting people. Providing additional insight may encourage the partipants to see this particular issue in a new light, and using statistics in the presentation to emphasise what issues are taking place could be a good start for participants, who may want to use these stats as a benchmark to measure the success of their ideas against.

• Problem statement:
In simple terms, what is the issue that will be solved. It’s important to make it clear to the participants what the issue they’re trying to solve is - and why it’s important.

• Impact:
It’s important to consider a problem’s impact, who’s affected, and how the consequences could affect them in the future. It could also show the relationship between the issue being addressed, and other issues which are affected by the consequences of the problem you’re trying to solve - ideally, the presentation will have some kind of forecast into how a solution could help a situation and the people involved in tangible and objective terms. Demonstrating the impact of the issue turns an abstract concept into a real-life problem that needs real-time attention.

• Product:
Now we all understand the impact of the problem, we can all see why a solution is necessary! Here is where the organiser shows how a solution could address the problem at hand. The organisers will also need to explain that paricipants need to demonstrate why the team chose to take this path instead of another. Even better if an end-product has been created and then tested, as the data can be analysed for statistical significance to further prove why the idea is useful!

• Demo:

This is great for showing the judges and audience how the end-product could work in action! If a prototype has been created in Marvel, it can easily be embedded in the presentation, or even better - shared with the audience so they can interact with it on their mobile devices for themselves!

Following these steps, will ensure that your hackathon runs smoothly and gives your participants a good opportunity to bring their ideas to life!

If you’re running a hackathon and using Marvel, please let us know on Twitter by tagging @marvelapp and using the hashtag #MarvelForGood! We looove seeing Marvel being used to innovate and potentially change the world!

If you’d like more help with this, please contact us (help@marvelapp.com)!

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