We Deserve Better Hackathons

For the last 12 months, in 2015 and 2016, I have attended a number of Hackathons (as a hacker, a mentor or a judge) around the Gauteng area (big shout out to Geekulcha and Wits DIZ) in South Africa.

All the hackathons had eager young coders hoping to build something great over a weekend (or a couple of weekends). At the same time, all of the hackathons, had disheartened participants who either

  • Struggled to get an idea together;
  • Felt they had no direction on what actually was supposed to be happening;
  • Were exposed to organisers/sponsors who did not really understand what has to come out of the experience;
  • Ultimately there was a mismatch between what actually gets judged in the Hackathon and what a "hacker" wants to do over a full weekend.


The above are just some of the frustrations I have seen or have been expressed to me.

For a lot of people, attending your first Hackathon is a rush. A lot of energy in a room. But after a while, cracks will start showing. When that happens, you have to make a choice on what you want to get out of it. If you do not reach your personal goal, you will likely stop attending. As such, I feel a lot of participants attend to learn how to code, make an App, pursue a business idea with others who are technical etc.

This, at some point, seems at odds with organisers or sponsor roles and expectations. They sometimes see themselves as just facilitating a space and nothing more. They provide a topic and that's pretty much it. They might go through dry runs of presentations of ideas from the hackers, but not much more.

I tend to think that if you sponsor a Hackathon, let's say on agriculture, we should expect that organisers will try to find mentors who are from that space. The sponsors will show up and talk about the common challenges in the area. Companies that have technologies (hardware, APIs) in the space will host short workshops to get hackers to try them out.

Giving up 48-72 hours of your life as both a hacker, an organiser, or sponsor should at least be rewarding to all. As such, the cookie cutter nature of host it and they will come, and leave somewhat disappointed is not sustainable.

I appreciate the work the organisers put in. I also appreciate the energy young people in South Africa have to build something.

But, we deserve better Hackathons.

"Hackathons are not really going to teach you how to code. You are not going to learn a whole semester of an algorithms class at a Hackathon."

You might learn some new technology, language or use of an API. You are not going to deploy a stable product. You might deploy a 3 screen web App on Heroku (if you have adequate internet access at the Hackathon!).

In South Africa, in my experience, you aren't going to be called for an interview for a great software company. You might meet some great mentors and other enthusiastic young people.

Our youth deserve better Hackathons.

So now what would happen if I would host a Data Analysis Hackathon?

I would have to provide access to the data to be made publicly available before hand (I appreciate the work Code4SA does with their Data Quests).

I would encourage the use of other data sources included in a curated list of organisations that share data. The theme would have to be narrow enough to allow for some guided mentorship, but allow creativity. At the beginning of the workshop, we would have to have some workshops on Data Analysis and some common tools.

Mentors would have to be knowledgeable and briefed. Encouraging companies and organisations to attend, to form a next link to what happens after the Hackathon. If there are students, are there graduate programs linked to it.

If there are those looking to go study, university programs that are aligned, are there internships participants can apply for?

These small things provide a rounded experience for the participants.

For the organisers, setting up your expectations is also equally important. If we are hosting a Data Analysis Hackathon, we have to be clear about what we want out of it.

Is it just to have people learn about some Data Analysis, is it to have it as a stepping stone to a Machine Learning heavy Hackathon?

Is it to expose some new data to a diverse audience for some ideas?

Is it to discover novel use-cases for known data or to uncover challenges faced by communities around us that can benefit from Data Analysis?

Through answering just some of these questions, we can have a focus and can execute better.

These are just some of my thoughts in the area, discussion very welcome. We all deserve better Hackathons.

Vukosi Marivate

About Vukosi Marivate

Dr. Vukosi Marivate is a Data Hoarder. Writes in his personal capacity on interesting things we can learn from data. Works for CSIR, ex-intern at Google Inc. PhD, CompSci, Rutgers University (USA)