How Hackathons Are Generating a World of Creativity and Fun

March 28, 2014 3:06 pm PST | Data as a Service
How Open Data Hackathons Are Generating a World of Creativity and Fun

By Tim Cashman


The open data scene is definitely getting a lot busier—in a good way. Both the number of open data events and their popularity continue to rise year after year. This year’s International Open Data Day, held on February 22, is a great example of this trend. A quick Google search yields page after page of stories on events held in more than 100 cities around the world.

Participation across the globe reached record levels, not without promotion from notable open data sources of record, including the Sunlight Foundation and the Open Data Institute. In the lead up to this year’s event, the Sunlight Foundation called Open Data Day the new Earth Day!

Sites across the U.S. also recorded particularly strong attendance. Perhaps emblematic of the country’s fast-growing adoption of open data (39 cities and 46 localities currently provide data sets to, the event in Washington D.C. garnered twice as many people, reporting a total of 500 participants.

While Open Data Day is starting to draw comparisons to rock festivals like Lollapalooza, there are a growing number of similar, but smaller events that are attracting crowds and generating buzz.  And they are seemingly popping up in cities and towns all over the world. 

A quick survey of U.S.-based hackathons shows upcoming events in venues from New York City to Honolulu. What is even more interesting to note is that the themes for these events are getting increasingly diverse. Whereas these events previously focused on areas like health and transportation, they now span media real estate, elections, music, and much more.

Upcoming Hackathons

Below is a quick sampling of U.S. hackathons on the horizon:

Alameda County Apps Challenge  Alameda County is know for it’s stellar commitment to civic engagement. The County is hosting its third hackathon on May 3rd, 2014. 

Berklee Music Therapy Hack — The Berklee School of Music in Cambridge, MA is sponsoring a hackathon to catalyze innovation in music therapy. Programmers, engineers, and designers will work through the night creating new tools to make music creation and engagement more accessible to all.

San Francisco Voting Information Project Hackathon — The Voting Information Project (VIP) is sponsoring an event this weekend for developers and designers to leverage the power of open data during this election year.

National Civic Day of Hacking – This event will take place in cities nationwide and will bring together technologists, activists, developers, and people from all walks of life committed to improve their communities.

Tips for Running a Hackathon

With all of the excitement around hackathons, local government leaders, community activists, developers and others have often asked us if we have any tips or best practices to share to make these events more successful. As a pioneer in the open data movement, members of the Socrata team have attended, led, moderated, and served as judges at hackathons around the world. And, over the years, we have compiled a few of the lessons we have learned. Here are just a few.

Line up Sponsors — Running a hackathon is never free, so you’ll need to talk to potential sponsors to see who you can help fund the event and offer resources. Talk to local software companies, government agencies, and businesses.

Many times if you are not able to get a sponsor to donate money, they might be willing to be an in-kind sponsor for the event. Donations of space, food, or volunteers can go a long way to helping stretch your budget.

Plan Ahead and Market Your Event Months in Advance—We have found that it takes several months of solid promotion to attract sufficient attendance for these kinds of events. It is definitely advisable to build a strong web presence to post information, collect signups, and provide frequent updates. But you should augment your hackathon website with announcements in other web forums, on social media sites, and at local universities.

Round Up Your Judges—You will need to round up three to five judges to weigh in on the apps that are developed over the course of the event. Great candidates for judges include government officials, key members of the local development community, or representatives from the local media.

It is clear that the open data community is growing. Big national and international events are certainly shining a bright spotlight on the movement. But a growing number of smaller hackathon events are helping to infuse the movement with new energy, enthusiasm, and creativity.

Interested in organizing or participating in an upcoming hackathon? Check out “How to Run a Hackathon.”

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