Who Invented the Hackathon?

Hackathons have been around for at least 14 years, but some people are still on the fence as to whether they deliver real value.

The first recorded hackathon was a group of 10 OpenBSD developers who met on June 4, 1999 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Incidentally, a group of Java developers met at the JavaOne conference just a few days later, June 15 through June 19, 1999, with the goal of writing a program for the Palm V PDA that would allow communication between devices via the infrared port. Whether it was just coincidence that the events happened so close together or whether the events were fueled by rising market demand for innovation in a surging technology-based economy, that period marked a milestone in technology history and began a popular trend still building momentum today.

It’s reasonable to believe that these two events were not actually the first hackathons, given the loose definition of the term. A hackathon is just a group of developers gathering over a few days with a common focus in mind. First increasing in popularity in the mid-2000s among private companies as a way to quickly develop new software and come up with new ideas, the events have now become so commonplace that many have soured on the concept.

Hackathons have been criticized for being counterproductive, unhealthy, and one Digital Communities contributing writer dismissed the events as “stupid,” though not unequivocally so.

The writer of a Harvard Business Review editorial complained that hackathons don’t work, and while many see the events as an exciting opportunity to transform society over a weekend, it turns out that society can’t be moved that quickly. The same writer pointed out that the typical amateur analysis of open data that happens at these events can actually cause harm. Amateur developers aren’t data experts, and government data is therefore sometimes misinterpreted, which can lead to “solutions” based on faulty premises.

Bill Schrier, senior policy adviser in the Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO) in Washington state and a contributing writer for e.Republic's Digital Communities, had apparently had enough of the headline-grabbing events. He dismissed app contests and hackathons, citing several pertinent shortcomings. The biggest problem with hackathons, Schrier said, is that enthusiasm and good intentions on behalf of participants and organizers don’t necessarily translate into anything useful for society, and even apps that survive past the weekend typically die off soon after.

The failure of hackathons to deliver viable, long-lasting products is a valid complaint, and easily demonstrable, as sites like Apps for Democracy are not app portals so much as they are app graveyards. It’s true that most hackathon apps don’t live long.

Schrier also pointed out that a lack of standardized data formats and availability across governments leads to a scalability problem. An app developed for Atlanta only worked because the needed data was available, but expanding that app to Chicago or Tallahassee usually turns out to be very labor-intensive, if not impossible.

A Broader View

Most of the usual points made by hackathon critics are valid, but they’re also a bit myopic. Critics are either failing to see the bigger picture or they are simply uninterested in art. After all, if hackathons have a such a low rate of delivering viable products and are plagued with so many problems, why are developers organizing meetings to eat pizza, stay up late and code elbow-to-elbow at an ever-increasing rate? Are these just adults who miss having slumber parties?

One of the elements at play is a framing problem. Hackathons are frequently perceived and marketed as a cheap and quick solution to civic problems. “Come! Gather, and fix the city with your laptop this weekend!” event organizers seem to be saying. And then when the city’s problems aren’t fixed by Sunday evening, critics point and say, “Look, nothing was accomplished. Hackathons don’t work.” But the value of hackathons isn’t that concrete.

The same critics would not criticize a clown visiting a sick child in a hospital if the child were to remain sick after the clown has left. The clown is unlikely to cure the sick child all by himself, but his effect is nonetheless comforting, encouraging and entertaining -- a complement to the real medicine being administered. Events centered around collaborative civic software design encourage a culture of positivity, cooperation, and proactive engagement with government. Such cultural influence is difficult to quantify, but does have value.

Where programming and software design have traditionally been independent activities, hackathons give developers a unique chance to meet one and learn from one another face-to-face. In a Forbes editorial, Claire Topalian of Startup Weekend defended such events and cited their educational value. “The structure of an entrepreneurial event simplifies the abstract notion of ‘starting a business’ into clear, actionable steps,” she wrote. Most attendees of Startup Weekend or any given hackathon won’t reinvent the world in 48 hours, but many will learn things about programming, planning, and government that stay with them throughout their careers.

Another common criticism of hackathons is that after the event is over, most people stop developing the ideas they conceived for the event. That is understandably lamentable in some cases, but not just cause to throw the baby out with the bathwater. For many, attending a hackathon could be a first step for starting a new career in technology or changing the way they think about their community and their government. Besides, abandoning one idea makes room in the developer’s mind for a new one.

There’s also an argument to be made that hackathons are not being run entirely correctly, something critics are quick to point out. But that is actually supportive of the concept. The problem isn’t that the concept is bad, it’s just that it’s not being executed correctly. The first attempts at air travel began more than 2,000 years ago in China and the majority of the implementations up until 1903 were terrible, but people didn’t give up and now humans are flying all over the world and beyond, even into outer space. So rather than scrapping the whole hackathon concept or condemning it, perhaps it would be more constructive to build on the small successes demonstrated so far in an attempt to replicate them.

Facebook’s “Like” button, perhaps one of the most iconic concepts in computer technology today, was developed during a hackathon. That’s not to say it wouldn’t have been eventually developed anyway, but if there are smart, creative people who are ready to invent such things, it’s only a short-sighted government that would pass up an opportunity to take advantage of that.

Here’s a list of just a few of the hackathons that Government Technology has reported on:

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.