What's The Hackathon Secret Sauce?

Posted by Gabriel Couture on August 23, 2016

On August 23rd, Capital One Canada and Hackworks launched Gift the Code, a hackathon with the aim of helping six Toronto charities enhance their technical ability to overcome challenges and better fulfill their mandates. The hackathon is a testament of Capital One’s commitment to giving back to their community in innovative and unexpected ways. During Gift The Code, participants will work on developing strategies, solutions and digital prototypes that help answer challenges presented by the charities. What's more, the participants will be introduced to problems that afflict their communities, learn about challenges charities face and network with people from across the city interested in using their skills for a good cause. They arrive with a fresh perspective, join a motivating creative environment and bring diverging skill sets to the table. Ultimately, Toronto citizens will help beef up the digital platforms used by the charities to provide aid to the different individuals and communities who use, and need, their services. What's more, it's all open source, so the results and outcomes of the hackathon have the potential to spread internationally and help non-profits, charities and other organizations around the world! It’s a win-win for all involved and a great example of how versatile and effective the hackathon format is to generate change.

For most its two decade long history, hackathons were understood as the domain of hackers, bro-coders, techies and startups. Over the last 5 or so years, this has changed rather dramatically, but the present-day popular understanding of the term still belies its broad potential as a tool for promoting creativity, community development and problem solving.

Hackathons today are used for a wide variety of purposes. At Hackworks, we have run over 150 innovation challenges, including hackathons in 125 locations. Among them, we’ve organized national open data hackathons with the Canadian government, executed a hackathon that provided bank employees with an empowering experience to take initiative and create digital tools that would help them become more mobile and efficient, and coordinated an event with Evergreen and the city of Toronto with the goal of developing insights and prototypes for solutions that would help solve Toronto’s awful traffic woes. On the surface, the hackathons couldn’t be more different, but the core principles are the same: competitive collaboration under creative pressure resulting in rapid solution prototyping.

Participants in these hackathons are a mix of motivated employees, civic activists, students looking for exciting learning experiences, professionals wanting creative outlets for their talents, software engineers looking for opportunities to use their skill sets, data scientists curious about sifting through data unrelated to their work and other engaged citizens hoping to network and participate in stimulating activities. They come from different personal and professional backgrounds and each brings a unique perspective to the table. That’s wherein lies the hackathon secret sauce!

The success of a good hackathon lies in its ability to harness the diverse talents of the participants, inspire them to collaborate and contribute their ideas to a specific cause and make sure the event satisfies the organizer’s original objectives. The power of hackathons is predicated on the capacity of people to deliver more of themselves in concentrated bursts of time and the potential that comes from crowdsourcing ideas from motivated participants. Depending on the objectives of the hackathon organizer, hackathons can be used for an almost infinite array of purposes, whether technical or not. What’s clear is that the results of our hackathons (and others) convincingly indicate that people work more efficiently:

  • With specific objectives.
  • In concentrated bursts.
  • When empowered to express their thoughts and opinions.
  • In small groups who can support and challenge the ideas put forth.

Hackathons emphasize all of these elements. You can accomplish pretty much anything within the framework of a hackathon – including achieving a CSR objective and making your community better like Capital One – but it’s important to know what you want to achieve. The only question one needs to ask is, “what are my objectives?” or more simply: “What do I want to be left with on Sunday night?” ;)

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