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Broadening hack days

Page history last edited by Mia 8 years, 5 months ago Saved with comment

'The conversations about how to bring non-geeks (as in non-coders) into hack days have been going on for years, particularly around culture or history hacks, so I thought I'd start a page to record some of the discussion.  I want to leave this page open for discussion so I'll post my thoughts below as comments.  Please edit away, or join the conversations in the comment below...


There's an ace new site, http://hackdaymanifesto.com/, which has lots of useful information for planning tech hack days, and also includes some useful tips for encouraging diversity, including: 'Get someone who is demographically very different from you to check your marketing material through to see if it makes sense and isn’t offensive to someone who doesn’t share your background.'


Who should attend hack days?


What are the best ways to broaden the appeal of hack days and their outputs?

Include different people!

'Interrogating the SFMOMA API Through Participatory Design' by Chacha Sikes and Sarah Bailey Hogarty has some useful suggestions. 


Different formats?

Prototyping an IDEO Make-a-thon

'We wondered: How could we help the digital community build out more of these winning tech and design solutions? What would happen if we got passionate designers, hackers, and digital community members in a room with no distractions one weekend, all working towards creating physical & digital prototypes for social good? ... Originally we thought of doing a hackathon. Then we decided to push the concept to its next iteration. How could we bring together multidisciplinary weekend project teams—not just software engineers and digital designers, but also industrial designers, architects, and problem solvers from different backgrounds? Could we create a new kind of design-driven collaborative event? Inspired by IDEO’s own maker culture, the DIY community at Maker Faire, and Silicon Valley hackathons, we decided to experiment with the concept. We called this prototype event a “Make-a-thon.”'



Museomix is inspired by the open, participative and networked practices that have emerged from the web. It’s an event-driven community of GLAM people, designer, makers, developers, teachers, startupers, art amateurs, museum lovers...  Over three consecutive days, participants co-create and test new ways to mediate exhibitions.

Presentation in english here 


You Can't Just Hack Your Way to Social Change points out 'Data events like these require special requirements beyond your average hackathon. You need to have a clear problem definition, include people who understand the data not just data analysis, and be deeply sensitive with the data you're analyzing.

Any data scientist worth their salary will tell you that you should start with a question, NOT the data. Unfortunately, data hackathons often lack clear problem definitions. Most companies think that if you can just get hackers, pizza, and data together in a room, magic will happen. This is the same as if Habitat for Humanity gathered its volunteers around a pile of wood and said, "Have at it!" By the end of the day you'd be left with a half of a sunroom with 14 outlets in it.'


What are the various stages of a hack day, and when would different perspectives and information have the best impact?



@andrewnairne suggested a role for cultural workers in contributing ideas about problems that need solving while 'being open, I imagine, to a hack day addressing something you hadn't thought needed addressing..!'.


@harryharrold said 'If output is a dev'ed prototype; useful with ideas, very handy to have native guides to data. But in 1 day, time to build crucial.' [Too-short hack days is a whole other conversation but if they must be short, let coders get on with it!]


Your favourite examples of internal organisational problems; audience-related problems?


Ideas generation

Lots of creativity needed here...



Best to let the hackers get on with it?


Review, judging


Show and tell

Showing off the results, at the event or afterwards...


Related question: what are different types of people impressed by?  User experience, novelty, quality of execution, quality of ideas, elegance of code hack?



Emma Mulqueen's post on Types of hack day is really useful.  Generally GLAM hackdays are 'Hacks for a cause', but they might also be 'Hack on new kit or new data/API' or 'Hack days as research and development'.


How should talks and presentations fit into the schedule?

And who should they be aimed at during different stages of the event?


What are potential points of resistance and other challenges?

From hackers, from people within organisations...


Related question - is there a tipping point when hack days start to feel like work rather than fun, when the playfulness is lost?

Comments (Show all 52)

Mary Hamilton said

at 12:07 pm on May 17, 2011

I think I'd agree with Janet that sometimes the division can feel like an exclusion. I fit as part of a multi-disciplinary team, I have useful skills, but I can't just put my head down and make something that works on its own without help. Unless that something is a paper prototype, or a mashup that uses pre-existing tools, or a set of cards scribbled on bits of paper.

Is the proposed hack day just about digital/electronic games, or do you want a broader creative day that incorporates board/card/live as well?

Alex Moseley said

at 12:54 pm on May 17, 2011

Thinking around the museums hack day particularly, I like the idea that whilst all ideas need some sort of development, it's not always Developers in the strict (technical) sense: museum games might be based around cards - in which case we'd need creative writers, graphic designers etc. as part of the development team (with game designers/content experts also involved in the design stage). In other cases, there might be a physical product *and* a coded solution, in which case all of the above plus coders and screen designers needed.
If we add this idea to that outlined by Katy and Rachel above, then wider 'creative teams' will lead to wider creative outputs (across a range of media and with a range of ongoing costs) than a traditional Developer/non-Developer divide.

Mia said

at 1:06 pm on May 17, 2011

To clarify - there's probably a conversation about the museum games hack, general museum and cultural heritage hacks, and generic hack days - definitely the museum games hack is entirely different to a geek-forcussed hack in my mind (she says, as she rushes out the door).

Harry Harrold said

at 10:38 am on May 18, 2011

" but am sure there's a more collaborative model (a bit like the Great Egg Race, if anyone remembers that?!) that we could experiment with"

That's it! That's the model! And I _think_ that puts us still firmer in paper prototype land - anyone can wield a pair of scissors, it's tangible, it's a physical artefact that can be recorded, etc etc... Let it be called a Papercamp! (Or something...)

Rachel Coldicutt said

at 12:01 pm on May 18, 2011

I'd agree with Mia that a museums hack might have a different format. There was a papercamp in London last year (http://bookcamp.pbworks.com/w/page/13230936/PaperCamp) - I didn't go, but it seemed to be a lovely event. I now want to make machines out of elastic bands and Fimo.

Richard Light said

at 12:23 pm on May 18, 2011

So there's a general feeling that the current hack day approach is too restrictive, in that it precludes useful participation by anyone who isn't a coder? To that "excluded" list I would add coders who work on back-end stuff, rather than user-facing products.

So, if we take away the (requirement for) coding, what are we left with as a reason to congregate? Maybe we need smart, open-ended questions which could be addressed in many ways, e.g. "what can museums offer bored kids in school holidays?". Thus far, the motivation has simply been "here's a resource (Govt. data; Culture Grid) - what can you do with it?", which is argubly a bit lazy, especially when you don't need to attend the hack day to access the resource.

Harry Harrold said

at 1:55 pm on May 18, 2011

@Richard I'm not sure that's true. The current hack day approach is too restrictive for purposes-other-than-those-for-which-it-was-originated. As I understand it, and I'm only from 3 years or so experience here - hackdays were originally about devs goofing about. Noodling. Doodling in code. Having fun. (Whether front-end or back-end coding, I'd argue) And the format works for that. It doesn't work as a platform for co-design, because that's not what it is.

Hence, conversations about "what would"... I think the notion of smart, open questions is really useful, I think you're right about lazy inspiration, I think a medium which works across disciplines is vital, I think an idea of what an output should actually be is useful. But most of all - I #don't think it's about changing hackdays, I think it's about making a new thing.

JoePadfield said

at 3:29 pm on May 18, 2011

Perhaps this is over complicating things but would it be worth looking at a number of separate but related events/stages?

Stage 1: Introduction
For: Mixture of coders and users
Output: Increased understanding and awareness.
Summary: Explaining what information is available and what sorts of things can be done with it: Introduction to the resources for less techy people, presented by more techy people, with very simple worked examples of use, linkages, etc.

Stage 2: Investigation
For: Mainly for users
Output: A simple set of user scenarios; listing the questions people would like to be able to ask and the linkage combinations they would be interested in.
Summary: An opportunity for users to discuss possibilities, given the information that is available what might we want to do?

Stage 3: Implementation
For: Mainly for coders
Output: A simple set of technical examples/prototypes
Summary: Working from the presented user scenarios the coders could embark on a targeted form of a hackday.

Mia said

at 1:30 pm on May 19, 2011

It's definitely worth looking at...

I'd go one further, and split out design and implementation - design is open to more people cos it can be done on paper, in Lego, as user stories, in HTML, with pictures cut out from magazines...

Of course, a lot of design is figured out through implementation, but we'd also be able to include more hackers who don't have shiny design skills if we can work out ways to slightly separate the stages.

Mia said

at 3:43 pm on May 18, 2011

A link about the Great Egg Race for the non-English (or the very young?) http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/great_egg_race/

Mia said

at 1:32 pm on May 19, 2011

More thinking aloud... the core value in hack days seems to be energy and space/time to meet and work, plus constraints like time or particular datasts or design challenges. Hopefully insight and creativity are also sparked during hack days, but that doesn't always seem to be the case (e.g. people going for tried-and-tested hacks or coming with ideas already a bit too planned or set).

None of those things are dependent on it being a day where code is produced, which leaves the concept wide open for all kinds of participants. I love tools like paper prototypes, and they're perfect for design hacks cos anyone can produce them. There are lots of visualisation tools around that can help people express ideas without too much code. Maybe Arduino for beginners, too? (FWIW, I'm probably also writing a workshop on 'enough code for beginners to start hacking', cos I want to see more diverse people having a go.)

As a side note, we made some at Europeana's eurohack, but they weren't taken as seriously as code outputs, though we had a lot of backend code too - to pick up on Richard's point, backend code doesn't count as much as presentation code at a hackday, no matter what problems the backend code might be solving. So maybe we need to think about the metrics, or what's rewarded at a hackday?

That said, if it's a hack where people are working on code (i.e. in headphones-on mode), there are particular things that make them more productive and happier, which it's good to differentiate what kind of hack we're talking about at different points in the discussion cos it'd help us understand where we're all coming from. I should do this myself as I tend to ramble across all the models cos I'm a backend coder and user experience designer.

Mia said

at 1:32 pm on May 19, 2011

In separate comments so replies can be near each other... I've always been curious about how it'd work if you mixed unconferences with hackdays - making the talks open to all might give everyone agency in setting the agenda for the event, reducing the likelihood of it starting to feel like work?

Mia said

at 1:33 pm on May 19, 2011

Hackdays as events that produce rapid prototypes that could then be commissioned would be brilliant - but how to make that work with EU etc procurements processes?

Janet E Davis said

at 5:10 pm on May 23, 2011

I am genuinely surprised that the idea of developers/coders/designers as one tribe and museums/galleries etc people as another tribe is quite so deeply rooted. For many years, there have been times when I have sat beside a software engineer/coder for days and we have worked together on building something. Maybe I'm unusual. Admittedly, I've done a bit of research on information and image retrieval methodologies, and I'm interested in culture databases and metadata; and have done a lot of reading up during the past 10 years on website accessibility. But I wouldn't have thought that I'm that unusual.

Sorry, I have been too busy on other things to have written the blog post yet that I promised, and share a bit more about what I've noticed working or not working in culture/history/CultureGrid etc hack days. I will - but in the meantime...
Yes, I'm thinking we need a new thing. I'm wondering if "CultureCamp" would be an appropriate name?
I think that it needs to have a distinctly fun element - and probably pizza, lots of coffee (and beer, for those who like beer). It would be brilliant if we could organise some potential for funding some projects. I see it as an event that has a creative buzz. I remember that a couple of months ago, some of us were sharing videos of things made using Arduino + Web technologies. And it included women who don't code/don't code much who were saying 'Would love to know how to do that and come up with other fun things.'
I have lots more to suggest - but will have to wait for a bit longer...

Jo Pugh said

at 5:27 pm on May 23, 2011

Yes, I agree with Janet. The way we tried to hack stuff internally was simply to work in groups where each group included a collections person and (nominally) a front end developer and a back end developer. The developers don't have to be chained to the collections person but all of them can bat ideas around to begin with which is bound to improve the chance of something useful being produced.

For a hack day this might change things around a little - for instance why are developers so obsessed with presenting working examples? As long as they can demonstrate that the application CAN work, I don't need them to spend 20 hours over the course of the weekend data wrangling. I'd rather they spent that time extending the functionality. The datasets involved could be very small and just prove the general principal. We'll do the donkey work later if the thing's that good.

Mia said

at 6:51 pm on May 23, 2011

Janet, I don't think it's tribal? The requirement for deep concentration without interruption could equally apply to someone writing text or code (i.e. when someone talking to you risks interrupting your flow), it's just that it's more likely to be someone working on the detailed implementation of code against the clock at a hackday. But to pick up on Jo's point, I think the way prizes are judged and awarded at hack days means that groups focus on working implementations because that's what wins prizes (and therefore require concentrated work on details rather than collaboration on ideas). I've noticed some hack days don't have prizes anymore, the activity is its own reward - that'd work for me.

Janet E Davis said

at 10:44 pm on May 23, 2011

Understand what you're saying about the need to concentrate, Mia, but I've been to more than one hack day where the techs and the non-techs were kept apart before any coding started.
Jo, interesting to hear that you have tried mixing together collections & tech types.

One last thing for now - I'd really like to bring some other creative people into the mix - for example, architects. Some architects are very good at thinking of different ways of creative collaboration.

Rachel Coldicutt said

at 11:27 pm on May 23, 2011

I completely agree about bringing in a mix of people with different skills - I'm very much hoping to get a little bit of funding together to do a similar thing in the next few months, but there are lots of questions regarding format/duration of the event that I guess we'll only answer by running a few different events and seeing how they work - and doing it with an open mind, so that we're "hacking" the format of the hack day as we go.

Mia said

at 11:17 am on May 25, 2011

Janet - ah, I didn't know you'd had that experience. I suppose I kinda gatecrashed the coding part of culture hack day but I missed the start so don't know how much mingling there generally was.

Speaking of event formats, there's some interesting stuff going on with THAT Camps, particularly in the US e.g. http://chnm2011.thatcamp.org/

Harry Harrold said

at 11:43 am on May 25, 2011

@Rachel Hacking the hackday - very much the way forward, most helpfully if conclusions can be drawn as to the effects of format changes.

For example, our Rewired State: Norfolk _did_ have ideas submitted beforehand, and _didn't_ have prizes. What I didn't consider all that deeply was what affect that had on outputs... Mea culpa.

Rupert Redington said

at 1:51 pm on May 27, 2011

The mention of "The Great Egg Race" has me excited. For me the great thing about that format is that all the teams are addressing *precisely* the same challenge. A significant part of the appeal is seeing the different techniques used to satisfy the same goal.

As a developer I'd be very interested in taking part in a code-based hackday along those lines. I'd love to learn from the range of tools and techniques which would be on show, I think it would inspire the sort of by speakeasy Ben rightly wants... Maybe a few brawls too ;-)

As a paper-prototyper I've got a hunch that the putative Papercamp could inspire the same sort of learning around service design and UX.

In both cases the learning value for participants seems likely to be in inverse proportion to the breadth of scope of the challenge. In both cases the presentation/discussion slot would need to be longer than the swift show and tell that's been my normal experience at "traditional" (snigger) hackdays.

John Bevan said

at 1:59 pm on May 27, 2011

John Bevan said

at 2:03 pm on May 27, 2011

Good for Nothing (another hat tip for your #Enigmatic contribution Rupert) applies a lot of the ideas people are throwing into the discussion here.

Will watch, contribute as thing develop here. The stuff we did for Bletchley was awesome. Would be happy to chip in to ideas forming around a museum hack.

Did someone say Great Egg Race?


Rachel Coldicutt said

at 5:23 pm on May 27, 2011

John - Good for Nothing looks most excellent. Verrry interesting indeed.

Rupert - yes, I know what you mean about breadth of scope. I think there's a sweet spot that's very difficult to find - too prescriptive and you take the creativity out of it, too broad and coming up with a decent proposition can take too long.

I'm almost wondering if we're not getting close to meet-up territory? I would love to do a tinkering event around making actual things. And I'm having some chats with people like London MetWorks at the moment about the potential to do rapid prototyping stuff there so there might be a connection?

Mia said

at 6:33 pm on Jun 7, 2011

Yes to a meetup!

I'm now also really curious about how a papercamp would work with service design, cos I think there are lots of opportunities in service design for museums and cultural organisations...

Janet E Davis said

at 3:28 pm on May 28, 2011

I was getting some further ideas at the Thinking Digital conference this week.
Something that a few of us were talking about in breaks was how the bringing together of creativity and technology is so much easier in London than elsewhere. Public culture outside London can have not just low budgets but zero budget this year, which could hamper participation (just something to bear in mind).

John Coburn said

at 1:10 pm on Jun 2, 2011

Pleased to have found this thread!

With Culture Grid Hack Day, I felt that accommodating both time to share ideas and time to code within an 8 hour day was very tough. Even when ideas were shared on the day and in advance (via Google Groups and Twitter), only one project was the result of a collobaration between coders and non-coders. The majority of the event was head-down, head phones-on graft. And 8 hours wasn't enough time for anyone to work on more than 1 project.

Prizes is something else I'm grappling with for future events. I would actually like to spend money on developing great ideas but I agree that this incentive can work work to the detriment of on-the-day collaboration. I might actually keep quiet about funding until after the event next time.

Richard's idea for theming events around "smart, open-ended questions" sounds good. I'm also into novel museums/gallery venues hosting smallscale (15-25 ppl) but regular collections-linked theme events (Dinosaur Hack, Art Hack, )...the feedback we had into this from local developers was positive. It'd also provide the regular social opportunity that's needed to help break down barriers between unfamiliar coders, non-coders, etc and support collaboration.

Mia said

at 1:27 pm on Jul 19, 2011

I haven't had a chance to write up how we ran it or what we learned, but there are some images from the paper prototyping-style culture hack workshop Katy Beale and I ran at the V&A on Friday at http://www.flickr.com/photos/_mia/sets/72157627083308903/

Mia said

at 4:20 pm on Jul 30, 2011

I thought these posts on 'The Two Types of Programmers' would be useful - the distinction is often forgotten: http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2007/11/the-two-types-of-programmers.html http://blog.red-bean.com/sussman/?p=79

Jo Pugh said

at 7:08 pm on Jan 12, 2012

(Deep breath.) We're preparing to put some of these ideas into action in an event in March. If anyone's interested in a meetup before then to talk through some of the ideas thrashed out here and what does and doesn't work, let me know.

I particularly like the idea of something on Great Egg Race model. We have bow-tie wearers here who could extend challenges, I reckon.

Mia said

at 7:57 pm on Jan 12, 2012

Sounds exciting! Do you have a specific date? If you organise a meetup around broadening hack days I'll see if I can come down to London for it, and I'm sure lots of other people would be up for it, particularly if it'd be input for a real event.

Jo Pugh said

at 5:40 pm on Jan 13, 2012

Okay. Let me sound out a couple more people so I know we've got a quorum of sorts and then we can Doodle a date that suits. (I forgot you were an out of towner these days). Probably end of Jan/start of Feb.

Alex Moseley said

at 11:27 am on Jan 20, 2012

Not sure how I missed all the great egg race etc. discussion last year (and looking at yours & Katy's fab V&A culture hack workshop in more detail Mia); but I'm liking the direction this is going. We use paper/playdoh/craft rapid prototyping days within the Museum Studies course at Leicester (usually after a 'sandpit' day on site in a local museum), and they produce some amazingly rich and well-thought results.
Great news that you have something in mind Jo - and I'm up for a late Jan/early Feb meet too if I can squeeze it in.

Rachel Coldicutt said

at 11:37 am on Jan 20, 2012

Katy and I have obviously done lots of work and thinking on this, and we're pulling together a plan for the next stage of Culture Hack. Our diaries are a bit crazy at the moment, but we'd love to be a part of a conversation if the timing worked.

Re: a Great Egg Race - i've been speaking to some people at Brunel (where Heinz Wolff is still based!) about this - the first year engineering students do a mini GER at the start of their first term. I was thinking that would be a physical/robot hack, rather than a specifically museums based event.

BTW, if you're thinking of an event in March, you might want to get a date in the diary soon! There's quite a few hack days coming up before Easter so worth getting in early.

Also, I'm going to shamelessly plug one of our projects here, in case anyone's interested in applying or knows someone else who might. Leading on from Culture Hack, we've launched Happenstance, one of the 8 NESTA/ACE R&D projects. We're looking for 6 developers/designers/producers to be resident in arts organisations. Applications open till 30 Jan - details here: http://happenstanceproject.com/

Mia said

at 11:36 am on May 11, 2012

Oonagh Murphy has an interesting post about a totally non-programming hack day http://oonaghmurphy.com/2012/05/07/this-is-our-playground/ 'The aim of this project is to work outside the traditionally slow, often bureaucratic management structure of museums as a means to explore how time constrained working can facilitate innovation within museums.' See also http://ulstermuseumhackday.tumblr.com/

Nicola Osborne said

at 7:05 pm on Nov 7, 2012

Hi there,

Myself and my colleagues at EDINA are considering running an online hackday (likely to be December this year) for a project we've been working on and which I hope may be of interest. The project is called Will's World and is building a registry of metadata about Shakespeare resources across the UK.

The hackday would be open to all (as will the registry) but we also want it to be appealing and accessible as broadly as we can do. I am very much hoping you might able to involved either in giving us some feedback on the idea, in the event itself or both. Obviously we will also be trying to incorporate many of the excellent ideas already added above but I thought it would be worth seeing if you have thoughts specifically on making an online hackday accessible as the format is that bit different...

We've put up a blogpost about our idea here:

And we are running a survey to capture feedback here:

Please do feel free to forward/share with others - we want to both get word out about the possible event and capture as much feedback as possible before we start planning so we can make sure it actually works well.

Many thanks in advance,

Nicola Osborne said

at 7:07 pm on Nov 27, 2012

Thank you to those who saw my previous comment and completed our survey. I am delighted to say that a Will's World Hack will be taking place from 5th-12th December - it will all be online and will use video and collaborative online spaces rather than the traditional bricks and mortar hack spaces. More info on the event can be found here: http://willsworld.blogs.edina.ac.uk/2012/11/22/join-wills-world-online-hack-5-12-dec-2012/ and you can register to take part here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/viewform?formkey=dGx3ZkZfUW1DV3hZcjB2cl90TnN5b1E6MQ

Mia said

at 2:44 pm on Dec 20, 2012

It was so lovely to catch glimpses of the conversations about it on twitter. Will you post the results to http://museum-api.pbworks.com/w/page/21933412/Cool%20stuff%20made%20with%20cultural%20heritage%20APIs ?

Mia said

at 5:40 pm on Jan 10, 2013

If you haven't already seen it, 'On Hackathons and Solutionism' is worth a read. http://davidsasaki.name/2012/12/on-hackathons-and-solutionism/ 'One idea that seems to be gaining currency is to spend less time developing new applications that never seem to reach scale, and more time building communities around certain data sets. ... Bringing together diverse actors — including private sector, public sector, activists and technologists — to make sure that there is a purpose behind the data is the model of the “datapalooza,” which White House CTO Todd Park has been evangelizing for the past couple years. The starting assumption isn’t that there is an app or gadget that can fix complex social problems, but rather that there is value in bringing together diverse actors to contemplate the stories and social issues that lie out of plain sight in large datasets.'

Mia said

at 5:27 pm on Feb 18, 2013

A quick comment with a quote from 'Data flows at hackathon' http://www.smh.com.au/it-pro/innovation/blogs/smoke--mirrors/data-flows-at-hackathon-20130208-2e2fn.html on a variation in the hackday format:

"Teams were organise to try to spread out the developer, journalism and design talent. Each team was given some time to have an initial look at the data and get a feel for what they thought would make good story seeds. Each group did a 30-second elevator pitch to an editorial panel to get some guidance and then a final presentation at the end of the day to the same panel."

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