How to Host a Successful Hackathon in 4 Steps: The Pennsylvania Story

November 27, 2017 9:30 am PST | Data as a Service
code4PA logo
Photo: CODE4PA

In today’s information-crazed world, most organizations have more data than they know what to do with. The smartest civic leaders understand the key to innovation lies in knowing how to use that data to unlock potential, bring new technologies to life, and foster civic engagement and collaboration. Julie Snyder, Director of Data and Digital Technology for the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, is just such a leader. In 2016, Snyder and her team began planning Code4PA, a state hackathon bringing together government, academia, businesses, and citizens alike. It was the first hackathon of its kind for the state of Pennsylvania and wildly successful. Read on to learn the keys to their success.


Step 1. Study Other Hackathons

“Last year, we attended quite a few different types of hackathons to see how they were run,” says Snyder. “I was so excited by the citizen engagement I saw — how people were taking their personal time to come together and examine trending and predictive analysis of data.” Snyder’s research included studying hackathons at the state, collegiate, and business levels. In order to organize and plan an event of the scale she imagined, she knew she’d need strong partners. Snyder began by reaching out to Kelly Powell Logan, Vice President for Strategic Workforce Development and University Centers at the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology. Together, they defined the overarching goal of Code4PA.


“We wanted to work collaboratively to make Code4PA an opportunity to learn new technologies and work together to find new and better ways to look at the data and foster citizens engagement with the government.” — Julie Snyder, Director of Data and Digital Technology for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania


“We wanted to work collaboratively to make Code4PA an opportunity to learn new technologies and work together to find new and better ways to look at the data and foster citizens engagement with the government,” explains Snyder.

Together, Snyder and Logan brought in more partners, including the Technology Council of Central Pennsylvania and Code for Philly. Collaborating with these partners enabled Snyder’s team to pull together the state’s first hackathon to be held in two cities simultaneously. The partnerships also generated a significant amount of exposure, which helped the hackathon’s overall success.


Step 2. Prep Agencies to Share Data

Data is the foundation of a successful hackathon; organizers must see to it that participants have access to a variety of interesting datasets. When planning Code4PA, this job fell to Jere Matthews, Open Data Officer for the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

“My role was to work with the agencies to identify the business problems they were having, and ensure we were posting data that could help solve those problems,” explains Matthews. She began by talking to various government agencies, including the Department of Transportation. “When we first spoke with [the state DOT], we realized they had more than 20 years of crash and collision data. This data ended up being among the most popular with our hackathon teams, who looked at more than 100 data points to understand the story that data was telling around how to create safer roads.”

One of the apps created by a team at Code4PA helps drivers choose the safest route to their destination by avoiding intersections with the most fatalities, for example. “Many of the apps and ideas that came back were centered on how to create safer roads for Pennsylvania citizens, how the DOT can help improve road safety, and helping parents tell their young drivers which routes are the safest,” says Matthews.

All the data for the hackathon was available on the state’s open data portal, which contains nearly 100 datasets about radon, public health, restaurant inspections, and more.


Step 3. Invite in New Technologies

Code4PA relied on innovative new technologies for its overall success. The biggest piece of new tech was the “virtual classroom” concept. According to Logan, “The great thing for the university was the opportunity to open up a brand new location in the largest city in Pennsylvania. We created this virtual classroom in two locations, which meant our capital city was virtually connected to our state’s largest city. Each location was equally interactive.”


Code4PA Best Use of a Dataset API Philadelphia Team Titans Data Detective
The winning team for “Best Use of a Dataset/API” — “Team Titans,” located in Philadelphia — can be seen in the virtual classroom.


Snyder and her team credit the virtual classroom with fostering a rich sense of collaboration among hackathon participants. “We were able to bring the best and the brightest from each sector together to create wonderful solutions,” says Logan.


Step 4. Give Participants More Time

Most hackathons take place over a weekend. Participants spend 48-72 hours working on their app ideas and, in the end, are judged on mockups and basic outlines of the app they would create.

Snyder and her team hoped to have more than ideas come out of the hackathon; they wanted functioning app prototypes. The answer? Give participants more time. “We followed a model from Code for Philly,” explains Snyder. “It wasn’t just a weekend event. We kicked off the hackathon and then we gave the teams the tools plus four weeks to work together at collaboration sites. That extra time meant the teams were able to create comprehensive end-products and functioning app prototypes.”


The winning team created a website that uses crash data to help drivers make safer driving choices based on historical data.


In the end, the winning team created a website that uses crash data to help drivers make safer driving choices based on historical data. According to the press release, “The site,, can advise users of potentially unsafe driving conditions near their homes for up to seven days based on historical crash data, inclement weather and other information. The site also includes location-based data on water quality, air quality, contagious diseases, and jobs and training. Public safety agencies can also use the site to proactively deploy resources and address issues that may contribute to crashes. The winning team is made up of Harrisburg-area employees of TE Connectivity: Muthu Sabarethinam, Arun Thirunavukkarasu, Kathir Ramalingam, Reshma Keerthi, Vijay Kumar Ravi, Vivek Lakhani, and Yao Yu.”


Planning Ahead for 2018

Snyder and her team are proud of what they accomplished with the first Code4PA event. Detailed research and planning was the key to their success and they aren’t stopping now. Plans are already in place for a 2018 hackathon that will focus on the opioid epidemic. Snyder and her team are working closely with the healthcare industry as they plan the 2018 Code4PA event.

For more tips for a successful hackathon? Download Socrata’s guide to running a hackathon

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