The year 2020 was certainly not the best in recent history. The coronavirus outbreak has illustrated how quickly our modern civilisation, which had seemed almost imperturbable, can be derailed. Now, the rampant virus keeps our planet in check. The resulting medical, social, and economical crises will take us years to mitigate. Arguably, the Covid-19 pandemic is the biggest challenge to humanity since World War II. Yet despite all the hardship entailed, the pandemic yields valuable lessons and opportunities, providing fertile ground for science, innovation, and collaboration. For instance, in record-breaking time, multiple teams of international scientists developed functioning vaccines against the Covid-19 pathogen.
Furthermore, despite lockdowns and social distancing, our digital technologies enable us to continue working, teaching, and studying. It can be assumed, that this forced revolution of remote collaboration will sustain to certain degrees even after the pandemic has ended. The benefits range from increased individual flexibility to betterments regarding climate change. Another positive development induced by the pandemic is the plethora of ingenious and creative solutions people devised in order to bring normality back into our lives. For example, they have created apps, gadgets, and concepts to make public transport safer, to provide artists with a (virtual) platform for their art, or to ensure quarantined individuals get their groceries delivered.
It is remarkable that rather than from big companies and organisations, a considerable amount of these innovations came from individuals and small groups, many of them starting their projects at virtual hackathons, so-called ‘online hackathons’. Within the last couple of months, these virtual events have gained extraordinary momentum. At the beginning of the pandemic, across several countries and under the patronage of the respective governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) organised nationwide hackathons as a reaction to the Covid-19 outbreak, facilitating successful events and marking the start of the hackathon’s transformation to the virtual realm. Being a concrete exemplification of one of the pandemic’s perks, this growing event type with its vast potential will be further outlined in the following pages.
What the hack? – a brief summary of the hackathon phenomenon
Hackathons are a relatively young phenomenon in the event landscape. While gatherings of programmers and tech-enthusiasts back in the 70s are seen as the precursor of the hackathon, the word ‘hackathon’, and the event type that embodies the characteristics of the hackathon, appeared for the first time at the turn of the millennium. During such events, traditionally multiple teams of programmers and computer scientists come together to ‘hack’ – that is, to tackle – a specific challenge, creating functioning prototypical software or hardware solutions. The challenges can either be presented by the organisation hosting the hackathon or participants can work on ideas of their own. For example, this may be an API (application programming interface) for a particular software implementation or a solution to optimise computer vision in automated drones. Hackathons usually have a multi-day, ongoing setup (mostly 48 hours) which gives a hint of the portmanteau’s latter element, the marathon. Usually, at the end of the hackathon, the projects are submitted to a jury which deliberates on them, awarding the best projects with prizes. Next to materialistic prizes awarded to the best hackers, a hackathon rewards all its participants with great learning experiences, networking opportunities, and – as trivial as it sounds – a lot of fun.
In the last couple of years, hackathons became more interdisciplinary and cross-functional, slowly diminishing their image of events meant for computer geeks and nerds (even though this stigma still persists to some extent). Many organisations, from all kinds of domains (public authorities, enterprises, research institutions, and universities), have adopted the hackathon as an instrument, hosting such events in order to address various self-referred challenges or general ones that affect society as a whole. For example, companies host internal hackathons (for employees only) to further develop their products. Events such as these are how Facebook’s Like button or the dating app Tinder came into being. On the other hand, NGOs facilitate external hackathons (open for everyone), addressing challenges related to climate change. Inversely, there are companies conducting external hackathons for the common good while an NGO might need to improve internal workflows, hosting a hackathon to serve its own interests.
In modern hackathons, programmers, designers, scientists, communicators, prototypers, marketing specialists, etc., work side by side on a project, aggregating wide and eclectic input from different perspectives into a product or concept. In many cases, this leads to thought-out, sustainable, and creative innovations. Here lies the big potential of hackathons; they resemble melting pots of creative minds capable of producing novel, out-of-the-box solutions – a detonator of ideas. Unsurprisingly, hackathons usually support a free choice of approach in finding these solutions much similar to a skunkworks project.
Cataclysm populates cyberspace – the origin of the online hackathon
As hinted at in the beginning of this essay, the most recent break in the hackathon’s evolution was its digitalisation triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic. Before the pandemic and the resulting proliferation of virtual collaboration, the default duration which is common for a physical hackathon (about 48 hours, mostly a weekend) was not seen fit to be transferred to an online environment. Too complex and too inefficient had been the prevalent argument within the hackathon community. Then, in early spring 2020, shocked by the relatively sudden outbreak of the pandemic, governments, NGOs, companies, and academic institutions worldwide were frantically looking for countermeasures to mitigate the first wave’s impact. One of the said measures was the organisation of virtual hackathons. The idea, first realised in Estonia by local hackathon organisers, was to harvest a population’s collective intelligence in tackling challenges entailed by the crisis such as the protection of risk groups or the mitigation of health risks in public transport. It turned out to be a brilliant idea; the crisis-related online hackathons lead to unprecedented occurrences regarding public engagement. More than 28 000 people with all kinds of backgrounds and from various parts of the German population participated in the #WirVsVirus hackathon. This virtual hackathon took place on a weekend at the end of March 2020 during the first lockdown. At the time, it was the world’s biggest hackathon as well as one of the biggest online events in history. Similar events took place in other countries such as Poland (HackYeah) and Switzerland (#VersusVirus, with gluoNNet as a co-organiser), also recording overwhelming participant numbers. Despite initial technical difficulties regarding the tech infrastructure, all of these hackathons were a success, yielding a great number of projects. This was proof of the feasibility of online hackathons.
Admittedly, many of these projects stalled due to lack of quality, guidance, and/or the lack of time of the participants to pursue them any further after the lockdown had been lifted. However, a fair share of them was taken further and even accelerated; start-ups were founded with their projects still very much alive and kicking. One example being Pandemia Parliament, an online tool that aims to enable virtual balloting for parliaments, emerged from the Swiss #VersusVirus hackathon. At the moment, the young start-up is running an unofficial trail on a municipal level. Another one, called Veertly, which happens to be gluoNNets partner by now, has its origin in the German #WirVsVirus hackathon and created an online event platform that offers a vast repertoire of functions, simulating an event venue with virtual stages, break-out rooms, and other possibilities to meet up online. These are just two examples of many successful projects born in the state-subsidised online hackathons of spring 2020.
As of spring 2021, virtually all hackathon events are being facilitated online, as the virus is still among us. Since one year, dozens of online hackathons are being carried out monthly by all sorts of organisations. On-site hackathons will surely have a comeback once the world sails calmer waters. Nevertheless, thanks to their success, it seems evident that online hackathons, initially rejected in pre-pandemic times, have established their firm place in the hackathon landscape.
Hackathon 2.0 – more than just a virtual adaptation
Even though the core of the general hackathon concept remains the same, the event’s digitalisation entails ramifications not only on its characteristics and facilitation but also brings benefits and drawbacks of its own. A fully technology-dependent online hackathon, where people meet and collaborate remotely, is subject to different dynamics and peculiarities than an on-site event. Although the benefits of the general hackathon concept (innovation, learning, and networking,) persist in an online environment, their emphases change – some for the better, some for the worse. The online hackathon’s low-threshold accessibility in respect of location, time investment, and technology as well as its scalability and relatively low costs for participants and organisers alike, make it a powerful instrument to drive innovation and participation. On the other hand, being an entirely virtual affair, the online hackathon cannot offer the same learning and social experience as the physical encounter happening at an on-site hackathon. Also, collaborating on a project solely online is obviously more complicated than at an on-site gathering, especially, when it comes to prototyping. Better solutions in terms of remote collaboration, in general, need to be found. However, in the wake of the pandemic, this problem is already being tackled by numerous entities such as big companies like Zoom or Microsoft, but also small players like the abovementioned start-ups.
Leaving its shortcomings aside, the online hackathon’s benefits render it an intriguing tool for various applications in various domains. As the hackathons organised in response to the Covid-19 outbreak have shown, such events can host vast numbers of participants, operate nationwide or even globally, and can be organised in a relatively short amount of time. Additionally, these events yielded great outcomes that society can benefit from during the pandemic and even thereafter. Many of the start-ups and projects that were found during these hackathons do not only address issues related to Covid-19, but they also focus on things like remote collaboration and medical applications, creating general additional value. Therefore, online hackathons can be used as an effective countermeasure in times of crises but also to stimulate innovation like ‘classical’ on-site hackathons. The sheer number of participants an online hackathon can host potentially lead, by laws of statistics, to a fair number of promising innovations. Furthermore, the online hackathon allows the democratisation of the innovation process, may they be linked to a crisis or not, enabling large numbers of citizens from all parts of society to jointly work on solutions. From a socio-political point of view, this aspect bears a lot of potential in terms of integration, participation, and empowerment. The online hackathon phenomenon is a good example that, so far, the internet’s civic potential is greater than its current use.
Next to the public sector, other domains like industry, academia, and the humanitarian sector can profit from hosting online hackathons. On a global scale, creative minds can be invited to contribute to various causes. For example, in the shape of an online hackathon, hackers could explore the possible applications of a company’s latest software product, take part in a research institution’s citizen-science project, or support an NGO’s effort in improving welfare in third world countries. With its promising potential in driving innovation, bringing people together, as well as allowing for participation, all facilitated economically and ecologically, the online hackathon is a phenomenon worth being better understood. Consequently, for research fields like science communication, sociology, and political science, the online hackathon should pose an interesting object of research.
The evolutionary pressure exercised by the coronavirus has changed our behaviour. As a consequence, it also creates lasting effects on our culture and institutions, one of them being the event landscape. Our digital technologies allow us to stay connected and to continue collaboration in safe ways, mitigating the impact of the pandemic. Moreover, using these technologies in new, unprecedented ways opens many doors, the rooms beyond remain to be explored. The online hackathon is one of these rooms, a by-product resulting from the ongoing pandemic. One can assume that physical and virtual hackathons will coexist after the pandemic has ended. Both of them hold respective benefits and drawbacks which lead to different areas of application. Hosting a hackathon online or on-site will be dependent on the pursued goal, purpose, and requirements of its organisers. With the online hackathon, we have stumbled across a powerful instrument and applying as well as investigating it further seems promising and sensible.
This essay is a summary of some chapters of the author’s bachelor’s thesis ‘The Online Hackathon: Typology of a Hackathon Format and its Potential Application in Citizen Science’. The full thesis can be found here.