[okfn-za] Data hackathon challenges and why questions are important

Rufus Pollock rufus.pollock at okfn.org
Thu Mar 14 14:42:12 UTC 2013

TL;DR a) be realistic about the goals of hackathons or datathons - having a
good time & connecting people may be reason enough to have them b) the main
barrier to hackathons or datathons delivering on bigger goals is not the
lack of a focus on a problem but their resource constraints.

I've seen similar discussion re Hackathons / Hackdays / Appathons /
Datathons etc for as long as I've been participating or organizing them (5+

I think the key question is what you expect an event to do: if you expect
hackdays on their own to generate a useful product or tool you'll
(normally) be disappointed. If you expect to produce some good ideas, have
a fun time and build connections between people then you'll likely be a lot
less disappointed.

So, first of all: define your goal for these events :-)

Second, I strongly agree that more focus in events - starting with
questions rather than the data or the tool - is definitely better. But many
datathons or hackathons that I know do this (and have been doing this for
some time), in fact many even have an explicit problem / question
generation stage prior to the event, often involving subject matter experts
(we ourselves did something like this last Autumn for the "open interests"
hackathon on EU lobbying and subsidies

However, that *still doesn't guarantee you'll get that useful results*.

And that brings me to the crux of the matter: datathons / hackathons don't
usually have the time / resources to really solve a given problem. Going
back to the point above, I should emphasize, this isn't necessarily a
failure of the event unless your goal is to solve a problem (in 8h!).

But let's suppose you do have that bigger goal. Can hackathons or datathons
be useful? Absolutely but you have *got to see an event as just part of a
larger process *and you *must have a way to take forward the ideas and
prototypes* generated during the event.

That usually requires substantial resources whether of energy or money.

To give another concrete example, Open Knowledge Foundation Germany have
been running an initiative called "StadtLandCode <http://stadtlandcode.de/>"
to develop more civic apps in Germany. That project did have a hackathon
but it was only the start of a process, which involved not only a follow up
competition but also explicit support for the winners to go on an develop
their prototype app into something production ready and sustainable. In a
similar vein, the EU funded project
has appathons and app competitions as only one part of the app creation


On 12 March 2013 19:04, Siyabonga Africa <siyafrica at gmail.com> wrote:

> I totally agree with this post. Hacking, designing, building without a
> clear question to answer is almost always going to lead to disaster.
> Thanks Adi for posting this.
> Siya
> On Tue, Mar 12, 2013 at 7:22 PM, Adi Eyal <adi at burgercom.co.za> wrote:
>> ---------- Forwarded message ----------
>> From: "FlowingData" <newsletter at flowingdata.com>
>> Date: 12 Mar 2013 6:03 PM
>> Subject: Data hackathon challenges and why questions are important
>> To: <adi at burgercom.co.za>
>> Cc:
>> **
>>  <http://flowingdata.us2.list-manage2.com/track/click?u=f538bce868aac1144d248c0bc&id=b275b95e92&e=b011bde465>
>>  Data hackathon challenges and why questions are important<http://flowingdata.us2.list-manage.com/track/click?u=f538bce868aac1144d248c0bc&id=3346985fd5&e=b011bde465>
>> Mar 12, 2013 04:38 am
>> Jake Porway, executive director of DataKind<http://flowingdata.us2.list-manage.com/track/click?u=f538bce868aac1144d248c0bc&id=1daea7725c&e=b011bde465>on data hackathons and why
>> they require careful planning to actually work<http://flowingdata.us2.list-manage.com/track/click?u=f538bce868aac1144d248c0bc&id=d427c6d0cb&e=b011bde465>
>> :
>> 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.
>> Without subject matter experts available to articulate problems in
>> advance, you get results like those from the Reinvent Green Hackathon.
>> Reinvent Green was a city initiative in NYC aimed at having technologists
>> improve sustainability in New York. Winners of this hackathon included an
>> app to help cyclists "bikepool" together and a farmer's market inventory
>> app. These apps are great on their own, but they don't solve the city's
>> sustainability problems. They solve the participants' problems because as a
>> young affluent hacker, my problem isn't improving the city's recycling
>> programs, it's finding kale on Saturdays.
>> Without clear direction on what to do with the data or questions worth
>> answering, hackathons can end up being a bust from all angles. From the
>> organizer side, you end up with a hodgepodge of projects that vary a lot in
>> quality and purpose. From the participant side, you're left up to your own
>> devices and have to approach the data blind, without a clear starting
>> point. From the judging side, you almost always end up having to pick a
>> winner when there isn't a clear one, because the criteria of the contest
>> was fuzzy to begin with.
>> This also applies to hiring freelancers for visualization work. You
>> should have a clear goal or story to tell with your data. If you expect the
>> hire to analyze your data *and* produce a graphic, you better get
>> someone with a statistics background. Otherwise, you end up with a
>> design-heavy piece with little substance.
>> Basically, the more specific you can be about what you're looking for,
>> the better.
>> You are receiving this email because you opted in on FlowingData.
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> --
> Siyabonga Africa
> Digital Strategist - 24.com
> South Africa
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