Hackdays and Hackathons - Experience of running these events in a University.

Dr Chris Stokes, Director of Digital Learning

Seminar, workshop, symposium, colloquium, forum, panel discussion - there are many types of interactive events where people can meet to discuss a subject of interest. To this, I would like to propose adding ‘hackday’ and ‘hackathon’ to the list.

On July 14th we ran a HEA Fellow Led Workshop in Sheffield.

What is a Hackday/Hackathon?

To those not in the know, you’d be forgiven for thinking that hackdays or hackathons are just for computer coding or the analysis of large quantities of data, and this would be fair as this is where the concept grew from (we’ll return to this later) but need no longer be the case.

The origins of the hackday concept are in computer programming, with people coming together to collaboratively solve technical and programming problems. Now very popular, you’ve more than likely used software that has been improved through a hacking process; for example the Facebook ‘Like’ button was developed during a hackathon event in 2007, although it was called the ‘Awesome button’ back then).

The events can be short, a day or less (hackdays) or span multiple days (hackathons). They are usually quite informal, although structure and order are very much evident, with some having a competitive element (with prizes!). The concept is widely documented, and the brilliant ‘Hackday Manifesto’ outlines everything you need to know if you are thinking of running a conventional hackday event.

This proven concept need not only be used to solve computer programming or data analysis problems - it can also be used to hack ideas, or to support collaboratively solving problems. Higher Education is faced with many challenges, and the hackday concept with its focus on solving problems and creating solutions can be useful for bringing together a multidisciplinary group for an engaging and productive event.

At The University of Sheffield we have run a number of hackday and hackathons, and at this session we shared our experiences and tips for making your hacks a success.