Creating quick solutions and having fun: the joy of hackathons

Creating quick solutions and having fun: the joy of hackathons (from ACRL Tech Connect)

Hackathons– aka “hackfests”, “codefests”, or “codeathons”, are time periods dedicated to “hacking” on a problem, or creating a quick and dirty technical solution. (They have nothing to do with “hackers” in the virus or breaking into computers sense of the word). Traditionally, hackathons gave developers a chance to meet in person to work on specific technologies or platforms.  But increasingly, the concept of hackathons are used to work on solving technical problems or developing new ideas using technology in fields such as  law, public data, water supply, and making the world a better place. Academic librarians should be thinking about hackathons for several reasons: first, we help researchers to learn about innovative tools and resources in their areas, and these days a lot of this work is happening in hackathon settings. Second, hackathons are often improve library technology in open source and proprietary products alike. And third, hackathons are sometimes taking place in academic libraries (such as the University of Michigan and the University of Florida). Even non-coders can and should keep an eye on what’s going on with hackathons and start getting involved.

Origins of hackathons

People have, of course, hacked at technical problems and created innovative technical solutions since the beginning of computing. But the first known use of the term “hackathon” to describe a specific event was in June of 1999 when a group of OpenBSD developers met in Calgary to work on cryptography (see more on the record of OpenBSD hackathons). Later that same month, Sun Microsystems used the term on a Palm V project. 1 Just as in a marathon, individuals came together to accomplish a very challenging project in a short and fixed amount of time.

The term and concept became increasingly popular over the course of the first decade of the 2000s. The concept can vary widely, but is usually understood to mean a short time period (often a weekend) during which a specific problem is addressed by a group of developers working together, often by themselves but in close enough proximity to each other to meet and discuss issues. They usually are in person events where everyone meets in one location, but can be distributed virtual events. Often hackathons have prizes for best solution, and are a chance for developers to show off their talent to potential employers–sometimes companies sponsor them specifically to find new employees. But they can also be an opportunity for incubating new and learning developers (Layer 7).

Hackathons can be organized around an existing open source software community, but also frequently take place within a company to give developers a chance to come up with innovative ideas. One notable example is Facebook. In Pedram Keyani’s post, he describes the excitement that regular hackathons provide for Facebook’s engineers by giving them a chance to work on an idea without worrying about whether it scales to 900 million people. After the hackathon, developers present their prototypes to the rest of the team and have two minutes to prove that they should be part of Facebook. Some features that were developed during hackathons include the “Like” button and the ability to tag users in comments–huge pieces of functionality that might not be there without hackathons.

Hackathons in library technology

The first library technology hackathon we know about happened at the Access 2002 conference, and was modeled after PyCon code sprints (Art Rhyno, email message to author, July 18, 2012). The developers at this hackathon worked on projects related to content management systems for cultural content, citation digests, and EZProxy tools. Since then, each Access conference has had a hackathon as part of the conference. The Code4Lib conference has also had elements of hackathons (often as pre-conferences) throughout the years.

Another example of hackathons those sponsored by library vendors to promote the use of their  products’ API’s. Simply put, APIs are ways that data can go between platforms or programs so that you can create new tools with pieces of data from other systems. In 2008, OCLC sponsored a hackathon in New York City where they provided special access to various pieces of WorldCat and other OCLC products. Staff from OCLC were on hand to answer questions and facilitate breakout sessions. Hacks included work with controlled vocabularies, “find more like this” recommendation services, and several other items (Morgan). Eric Morgan, one of the participants, described  the event as a success partly because it was a good example of how librarians can take control of their vendor provided tools by learning how to get the data out and use in other ways.

How to get involved with hackathons

It’s easy to be discouraged or overwhelmed about the idea of participating in a hackathon if you are new to the open source software world. First of all, it’s important to remember that librarians who work with technology on a daily basis have a lot of ideas about how to improve the tools in their libraries. An example of this are the ideas submitted for the Access 2011 Hackfest. Ideas included bookmarklets, augmented reality in the library, and using iPads for self-checkout among many others. Reading that list may start to jog your own memory for tools you would love to see in your library but didn’t have a chance to work on yet or don’t completely understand.

But how to take those ideas and get involved with fellow developers who can help complete those projects? Many resources exist to help with this, but there are a few specifically geared at hackathons. First,  OpenHatch  is an open source project with the mission to make it easier to participate in open source software. One feature helpful to those just starting out are “Training Missions” that walk through basic skills you need such as working on the command line and using version control systems. Another area of OpenHatch shows lists of projects suitable for beginners and information on how non-coders can participate in projects. Keep an eye on the events listed there to find events geared for beginners or people still learning. Another resource for finding out and signing up for hackathons is

Try to participate in a hackathon at the next technical library conference you attend. You can also start small by meeting up with librarians in your area for a very informal library technology hackathon. Make sure that you document what you work on and what the results were. Don’t worry about having judges or prizes–just make it a fun and collaborative event that allows everyone to participate and learn something new. You don’t need to create something new, either. This could be a great opportunity to learn how to work all the bells and whistles of a vendor platform or a social media tool.

Don’t worry–just start hacking

You can approach hackathons in whatever way works for you. For some, hackathons provide  the excitement of competing for prizes or great jobs by staying up all night coding amongst fellow developers. If the idea of staying up all night looking at a computer screen leaves you cold, don’t worry. In a April blog post, Andromeda Yelton shared her experience attending her first hackathon, and encouraged those new to this type of event to “sit at the table” both physically and by understanding that they have something to contribute even if they are not experts. She suggests that the minimum it should take to be involved in hackathons or similar projects is “interest, aptitude… [and a] drive to contribute.” (Yelton)

There are a lot of problems out there in the library world. Hackathons show us that sometimes all it takes is a weekend to get closer to a solution. But don’t worry about solving all the problems. Just pick the one you are most concerned about, find some friends, and start hacking on it.

Works cited
Layer 7 Technologies. “How to Run a Successful Hackathon for Your Open APIs”. July 12, 2012.
Morgan, Eric Lease. “WorldCat Hackathon « Infomotions Mini-Musings.” Infomotions Mini-Musings, November 9, 2008.
Yelton, Andromeda. “My First Hackathon; or, Gender, Status, Code, and Sitting at the Table.” Across Divided Networks, April 6, 2012.
  1. This information comes from Wikipedia, but does not have a citation and I am unable to independently verify it. This is presented as common knowledge in a variety of sources, but not cited.

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