Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Making Hackathons More Understandable and More Fun for Remote Observers -- updated with Exemplars 11/18/14

Last update: Tuesday 3/24/15 @ 1:21 pm
These notes suggest a few procedures that could make hackathons more understandable and more fun for remote observers who are following the action via tweets and blogs. Hackathons attracted my attention because of my personal background as an educator who has a long-standing commitment to online programs and who has also been a policy planner, an academic systems analyst, an IT support professional, and a developer of complex computer applications; hence my suggestions will be applicable to community service hackathons (a/k/a "civic hackathons") and educational hackathons ... but they may also have value for commercial hackathons that provide winning teams with start-up investments or later rounds of funding.

I won't say why, as a lifelong educator of black students, I think hackathons are so important. Nor will I say why I attach historic significance to the grass roots coding movement that has swept the nation's black communities in the last few years, a movement that aims to teach thousands (eventually millions?) of participants how to engage in computational thinking, i.e., data driven problem solving. I'm saving these discussions for a future note on this blog ... :-)

A. Current Context
Today's hackathons involve competing teams that are composed of programmers and a range of other talents, teams that work in extended sessions -- all day, all night -- to develop applications that will help the apps' ultimate users deal with specified issues more effectively. I haven't participated in a hackathon as currently defined (yet); but from time to time in decades past I have been locked into "all-nighters" ==> coding sessions that ran into the wee hours of the morning (and beyond) wherein my colleagues and I produced programs that met contract requirements under specified deadlines.

However, in the last few months I've used Storify to organize the tweets from organizers, participants, and local observers at a few community service and educational hackathons into more comprehensible formats. I then posted the Storifys on this blog. (See the hackathons listed in the"DLL Storify" note on this blog.) In other words, I myself have become one of those remote observers who is trying to follow the action via tweets and blogs.

So here are my suggestions as to how the organizers of hackathons could transform these events into more satisfying experiences for those of us who are unable to attend in person -- families and friends, teachers and researchers, potential sponsors ... and fans. Yes, I sincerely believe that a few minor modifications would transform hackathons into an exciting spectator sport that would be fun to watch ... but one that would also inspire path breaking innovations that would substantially enhance the black experience at all levels of the nation's education systems. (Please note that my first two suggestions, beloe, about handles and hashtags have already become standard procedures. )

B. Basic Framework ==> "Programs" for Remote Observers
Like chess matches, hackathons are cognitive events wherein the real action takes place in the minds of the participants. So the media that cover these events for the benefit of remote observers should strive to reveal what's going on in the participants' heads.

By contrast, the hackathons that I have remotely observed conveyed the excitement and the profound satisfaction that was shared by the participants, by their friends and families, and by the hackathons' organizers ... but they conveyed very little about what the participants were really doing until the hackathons were over. It's been like watching basketball games where the cameras focused on the fans in the stands, then showed the final scores and the jubilation of the winners ... but never showed what was happening on the courts while the games were being played ... :-(
  • Remote teachers would like to see that the student participants really learned something by participating in the hackathons. Their perceptions of substantial learning would encourage them to involve their own students in educational hackathons
  • Remote researchers would like to know which hackathon procedures were more effective in producing more substantial learning outcomes
When we attend concerts, sports, Broadway plays, the circus, etc, etc, etc, we buy printed programs because it's easier to understand what's going on if we can refer to a printed program in our hands. So too with hackathons. But a hackathon's programs wouldn't be printed; hackathon programs could be a series of tweets that contained links to continuously updated pages on a blog.
  • During the weeks preceding a hackathon, I suggest that its organizers publicize the official handles that would be used for tweets from the hackathon's organizers and the hashtags that observers should use throughout the hackathon in order to share their own comments about what's happening

    -- Example: During the BlackGirlsCode "LoveIsRespect" hackathons in Brooklyn and Oakland (June 2014), the organizers used their existing handle @BlackGirlsCode and suggested that observers use the hashtags #BGCHackathon, #LoveIsRespectBK, and #LoveIsRespectOAK for their comments

    -- Example: During the YesWeCode hackathon at Essence Fest in NOLA (July 2014), the organizers used the handle @YesWeCodeHack and suggested that observers use the hashtags #YWCHack and #YesWeCode
  • Issues and Teams
    I suggest that the hackathon's blog provide brief descriptions of the issues that each team would address. The issues pages should be updated whenever a team's assigned issues have been changed or substantially modified.
  • Rosters of Teams, Players, Platforms & Tools
    Before the hacking begins, I suggest that pages be posted on the blog that contains a table that lists the names of the teams and the Twitter handles of the players, i.e., the members of each team. Remote observers who want to know more information about the players can use the handles to look up their Twitter profiles. (Note: Organizers might choose to preserve the anonymity of younger players by publishing pseudonyms instead of the real Twitter handles of the younger players.)

    As soon as each team determines its platforms and development tools, a third column should be added to the roster table that identifies these components Some examples = Browsers+HTML5/CSS/Javascript ... Browsers+Scratch ... iOS + ObjectiveC/Swift ... Android + Java ... etc, etc, etc
  • Automated Tweets
    I suggest that the organizers use their official handles to provide links to the issues and roster pages via tweets that would be broadcast again and again throughout the hackathon -- perhaps every 15 or 20 minutes -- for the benefit of remote observers who will be tuning in and out. These periodic tweets could be generated automatically by Hootsuite or by another comparable app.
  • "And the Winner Is ... "
    At the end of the hackathon, as soon as the judges announce their decisions about the first, second, and third place teams, these results should be tweeted a few times. Then the results should be added to the issues table. An additional column should provide brief summaries of judges' rationales for their choices of the top three teams.

C. Twitch ... added in November 2014
Less than three weeks after I first posted this note on the blog in early August 2014, Amazon acquired Twitch -- a gaming platform that the vast majority of folks over thirty never heard of -- for almost $1 billion. To do so Amazon had outbid Google shortly after Google had outbid Microsoft. Why were these cyber-titans competing so fiercely for such an obscure platform? Because Twitch had converted online games into a spectator sport that had 55 million young visitors/fans each month. 

I suggest that appropriate reconfigurations could enable hackathons to become a spectator sport ... with hundreds of thousands, if not millions of visitors/fans each month ... a fan base that would attract substantial investments from a wide range of advertisers -- investments that could support scholarships and research. For example, local, regional, and national scholastic leagues could host competitions for teams from K-12 schools ... similar leagues could be organized at the collegiate level ... In the context of the grassroots coding movement within the nation's Black communities, a movement that has been gaining ever increasing momentum in the last few years, the fan base for an HBCU league would be one of the most resonant.

Updated 3/24/15
Twitch now has a hackathon channel that includes Major League Hacking (@MLHacks on Twitter) as one of its content providers. In other words, Amazon & Twitch think there's a large audience out there for hackathons ... :-)

D. Exemplars  ... added in November 2014
Never having organized a hackathon or even participated in one myself, I am keenly aware that my observations could be dismissed as the musings of an "armchair general with 20-20 hindsight and far removed from the chaotic fog on the battlefields." Therefore it's gratifying to encounter real-live hackathons that implemented procedures that are similar (but not identical) to my suggestions because their organizers independently came to similar conclusions. Accordingly, from time to time I will add links, with comments, to the DLL Storifies of these exemplars ... And from time to time I will revise my suggestions (above) to reflect some of the best practices demonstrated by the exemplars:
  • Code for Atlanta's "Govathon 2014" ... a civic hackathon in November 2014 ==> DLL Storify
    -- Code for Atlanta used its usual handle, @codeforatlanta, and a designated hashtag, #govathon2014, to announce what was happening
    -- @codeforatlanta announced the formation of eight teams
    -- @codeforatlanta announced the problem that each team would address, one by one -- Team #1, Team #2, Team #3, etc
    -- At the end of the hacking phase, @codeforatlanta announced the start of each team's presentation one by one -- Team #1, Team #2, Team #3, etc.
    -- After the judges considered the presentations, @codeforatlanta announced the third place, second place, and 1st place teams
    -- An observer (probably onsite and possibly on the staff of Code for Atlanta) posted a concise blurb on a Facebook page that provided a fuller description of the functions of the first place team's winning app