What’s a Hackathon and Why Would I Want One?

The name 'hackathon' conjures up images of a room full of computers and intense, college-age programmers typing away trying to break the security of sites. While that intensity and innovation may have been the inspiration for these events, today hackathons are being used for good.

Hackathons are defined broadly as a place where programmers collaboratively code with a specific project or focus. The roots of these gatherings are found in the open source community, but many events today produce a product that will be owned by a company or organization.[Tweet "Hackathons: a place where programmers collaboratively code with a specific project or focus."]

The government is sponsoring hackathon events to jump start innovation within their IT shops and agencies in general. GSA recently brought together 60 developers, designers and data scientists from academia and the private sector to help them cleanse their existing data.  The benefits GSA and the participants (many from the contractor community) saw in the event was the ability to interact and share ideas in a new way, very different from standard industry/government interactions.

The hackathon environment allows the technical teams to take more risks than they would as part of an ongoing contract. It also allows people who traditionally do not work with the government (due to procurement restrictions etc...) get involved in solving critical federal IT problems. This results in working code and programs that can be further tweaked and integrated into agency work.

GSA is not alone in running these events. Police Departments nationwide are participating in a joint effort to open more data to build trust between the police and communities they serve.  June 6 has been named the National Day of Civic Hacking with more than 70 registered events happening around the globe. [Tweet "June 6 has been named the National Day of Civic Hacking. #GovEventsBlog"]

Hackathons can be events unto themselves (some last up to a week). But even then, there may be benefit to planning supporting events and social gathering around the hours of intense work. The variety of people participating can learn a lot from talking to one another in a social environment. Event planners can also look at building in a hackathon day into multi-day events to draw a more diverse and potentially more engaged audience.  Plus, at the end, you may walk away with a solution to an ongoing IT or data challenge.

We'd love to hear your experience with hackathons and how you could see them as part of the events you plan and attend.



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