About

On this website you will find information about how to design a hackathon that fits your needs. We will guide you step by step through key decisions you have to take on this journey. But let's start with the basics.

What is a "hackathon"?

A hackathon is a short intensive event during which people come together, form teams and attempt to complete a project that is of interest to them. Teams are usually collocated, and often composed of people with diverse backgrounds, experience, and expertise [1]. To get a more concrete idea we provided links to hackathons we co-organized here.

  1. Pe-Than, E. P. P., Nolte, A., Filippova, A., Bird, C., Scallen, S. & Herbsleb, J. D. (2019). Designing Corporate Hackathons With a Purpose. IEEE Software 36, 1, 15-22. (pdf)

How to use this website

This website is organized around 12 key designs decisions organizers have to take when planning a hackathon. For each decision, we provide information about when you should consider making it, who should be involved in the decision, how to make the choice and implement its result, and discuss potential tradeoffs among the various options.

For first-time organizers we provide example timelines for two types of hackathons. These walk you through the different decision points and show you examples for how and why you could decide for one or the other option.

Experienced organizers can directly access an overview of design decisions and create their own timeline for a hackathon that fits their needs.

A downloadable and citable verion of planning kit is available on arXiv. Please use following reference format:

Nolte, A., Pe-Than, E. P. P., Affia, A. O., Chaihirunkarn, C., Filippova, A., Kalyanasundaram, A., Medina Angarita, M. A., Trainer, E., & Herbsleb, J. D. (2020). How to organize a hackathon - A planning kit. arXiv preprint arXiv:2008.08025

Additional resources

You will also find links to additional resources such as sample guides by different organizations, information about workshops we conducted on the topic, and academic publications. The included guides provide a rich resource on how to organize the everyday details of an event. They however typically assume a particular goal and a particular style of hackathon. It is thus important to adapt them to fit your needs using the decision guidelines we provide on this website.

We are currently experiencing a surge of hackathon events organized online due to the world-wide pandemic. While still partly applicable, the suggestions provided on this website are based on our experiences related to collocated events. Organizing online hackathons will certainly require additional considerations that are not reflected here yet. We are currently studying these new and upcoming online events and we will update the hackathon planning kit based on our findings as soon as possible.

Example timelines

These timelines show an idealized procedure for the organization of two different types of hackathons. They are based on our previous experiences collaborating with experienced organizers, co-organizing hackathons and our ongoing research work.

Entrepreneurial hackathon

This timeline shows an example for a medium sized hackathon (between 100 and 150 participants) which aimed to attract entrepreneurs and foster innovative projects that can become successful businesses.

  • 4 months before the hackathon

    Goal: Fostering the regional development of the start-up ecosystem related to the cyber security domain.

    Theme: Cyber security

    Competition / cooperation: Decision for a competition style event. Teams can win prizes ranging from tech gadgets to start-up coaching and participation in accelerator programs.

    Duration / breaks: Discussion about and decision for a tentative date for a 48-hour event starting in the afternoon of the first day and ending in the afternoon of the third day.

    Agenda: Discussion about decision for a tentative agenda that includes daily checkpoints, a final pitch presentation and an award ceremony.

    Participant recruitment: Creation of an information hub. Contacting local universities, start-up hubs, tech companies, accelerator programs and government agencies to spread news about the event through their networks. Start of the social-media campaign.

    Stakeholder involvement: Discussing with representatives of aforementioned groups about their interest in the event and invitation to participate as mentors, give thematic talks and provide sponsorship and prizes.

  • 3 months before the hackathon

    Participant recruitment: Creation of an online form that covers participants’ contact details, their current profession and their projected role during the hackathon. Registration requires the payment of a small nominal fee that will be refunded after participation.

    Ideation: Decision for a pitch-style ideation process at the hackathon. Participants can indicate if they have a project idea for the hackathon and provide a short description as part of the registration form.

    Mentoring: Identification and invitation of a diverse group of individuals who can provide mentorship related to cyber security, various programming languages, design, entrepreneurship, marketing and others. Decision for a combination between mentor teams and individual on-demand support.

  • 1 month before the hackathon

    Team formation: Teams will form around ideas. They cannot have less than 3 members, have to be of similar size and include individuals with diverse expertise and interests including cyber security, programming, design and entrepreneurship.

    Stakeholder involvement: Finalization of sponsor agreements including prizes and talks at the hackathon.

    Participant recruitment: 1-day competitive ideation events in three cities close to the main hackathon location during which participants can start working on ideas and form teams. Winners receive travel support for the main hackathon.

  • 1 week before the hackathon

    Agenda: Adding final event agenda including thematic talks, trainings and talks by sponsors during each day to the information hub.

    Ideation: Adding information about the pitch procedure to the information hub.

    Mentoring: Introduction of mentors on the information hub.

  • Hackathon day 1

    Agenda: Welcoming words by the organizers, presentation of hackathon agenda including idea pitches, mandatory checkpoints for idea proposers, talks and trainings, expected outcome (pitch presentation) and jury. Reiteration of information hub and contact details for organizers and mentors.

    Stakeholder involvement: Introduction of sponsors and supporting individuals and institutions.

    Mentoring: Introduction of mentors, their area of expertise and their role during the hackathon.

    Ideation: Participants pitch ideas in front of organizers, mentors and other participants including information about which expertise they perceive to be required. Everyone can pitch. Not only participants that submitted ideas through the registration form.

    Team formation: Ideas are written on large sheets of paper that idea proposers hang on the walls in the foyer of the hackathon venue. Participants that did not pitch ideas go around and talk to idea proposers, discuss their expertise and voice their interest. Idea proposers select suitable team members based on interest and expertise. Ideas that do not gain sufficient interest by other participants are abandoned and the proposers of these ideas join other teams.

    Agenda: Idea proposers present their teams. Quick check by the organizers if the teams are of roughly equal size and if all teams have sufficient expertise to start working on their projects. Teams start hacking.

    Mentoring: Mentors meet and form teams with diverse expertise. Each mentor team is assigned to a group of hackathon teams that they support during the hackathon. Mentors focus on their teams but also support others if necessary.

  • Hackathon day 2

    Agenda: Idea proposers present their progress in front of organizers and mentors at the beginning of the day (1st mandatory checkpoint).

    Mentoring: Mentors meet, discuss potential difficulties that certain teams face and decide for mentors with related expertise to support them.

    Stakeholder involvement: Thematic talk before lunch time.

    Agenda: First pitch training for idea proposers shortly before next checkpoint.

    Agenda: Idea proposers present their progress in front of organizers and mentors at the end of the day (2nd mandatory checkpoint).

    Mentoring: Mentors meet, discuss potential difficulties that certain teams face and decide for mentors with related expertise to support them.

  • Hackathon day 3

    Agenda: Idea proposers present their progress in front of organizers and mentors at the beginning of the day (3rd mandatory checkpoint).

    Mentoring: Mentors meet, discuss potential difficulties that certain teams face and decide for mentors with related expertise to support them.

    Agenda: Second pitch training for idea proposers before lunch time.

    Agenda: Third and final pitch training for idea proposers a few hours before the final pitches.

    Agenda: Final pitches of idea proposers in front of all participatnts, jury, organizers, mentors and online audience (live stream).

    Competition / cooperation: Online voting for audience favorite, jury decision and award ceremony.

    Duration / breaks: Group pictures, networking, end of the hackathon and departure.

  • After the hackathon

    Continuity planning: Organizers share summary of the hackathon on information hub, connect interested teams with stakeholders and periodically contact winning teams about their progress.

Community hackathon

This timeline shows an example for a small-scale hackathon (< 50 participants) which aimed to bring together interested researchers, students and practitioners and form a community around a novel resource.

  • 4 months before the hackathon

    Goal: Formation of a community around a novel data resource which contains a virtually complete collection of all open source projects around the world.

    Theme: Development of research ideas and initial prototypes that utilize the resource.

    Competition / cooperation: Decision for a cooperation style event that focuses on joint exploration of the resource.

    Duration / breaks: Discussion about and decision for a tentative date.

    Participant recruitment: Identification of key individuals in industry, universities and scientific communities that could benefit from the resource and that can support the recruitment of individuals that would be interested in and would benefit from using the resource.

    Stakeholder involvement: Discussions with these key individuals as well as developers and maintainers of similar resources about their interest in the resource.

    Ideation: Decision to ask participants for initial ideas through the registration form and conduct additional ideation during the hackathon.

  • 3 months before the hackathon

    Participant recruitment: Invitation of potential participants through previously identified key individuals. Registration through an online form that covers their contact details, open source handle, preferred programming languages and interests in the resource. Selection of participants based on interests.

    Ideation: Ask invitees to propose initial ideas for hackathon projects through the registration form.

    Continuity planning: Invitation of selected participants and key individuals to common communication channel. Creation of an information hub to spread information about the hackathon and the resource.

    Mentoring: Identification and invitation of individuals who are familiar with the resource and relevant technologies to serve as mentors. Decision for dedicated mentors that are assigned to individual teams.

  • 1 month before the hackathon

    Specialized preparation: Development of documentation for the resource including sample code for selected project ideas that were submitted through the registration form. Sharing of documentation through communication channel.

    Duration / breaks: Decision for a 3-day event starting in the afternoon of the first day and ending in the afternoon of the third day with breaks over night.

    Agenda: Development of Development of a first complete agenda that focuses on hacking during the day with breaks breaks during each day for socializing and networking.

    Ideation: Planning for ideation session at the beginning of the event. Card based brainstorming with questions focusing on the usability and usefulness of the resource.

    Team formation: Decision that teams will form around ideas and that members should come from different institutions.

  • 1 week before the hackathon

    Specialized preparation: Pre-hackathon webinar to introduce participants to the capabilities and usage of the resource. Interaction during webinar that allows participants to connect to the resource and run code samples.

    Mentoring: Introduction of mentors and their area of expertise at the webinar.

  • Hackathon day 1

    Agenda: Welcoming words by the organizers, presentation of hackathon agenda and expected final submission (source code and presentation slides) and reiteration of communication channels and information hub.

    Stakeholder involvement: Introduction of supporting individuals and institutions.

    Mentoring: Introduction of mentors, their area of expertise and their role during the hackathon.

    Agenda: Participants introduce themselves to each other.

    Ideation: Card based brainstorming. Participants write ideas on cards and share them with the organizers.

    Agenda: Break for participants to socialize and network and for organizers to integrate ideas that were submitted through the registration form and to pre-structure brainstorming cards into thematic clusters that can be the basis for hackathon projects.

    Ideation: Discussion of pre-structured clusters and adjustment based on participant input.

    Team formation: Participants select cluster / project based on their interests while observing the rule that they should be from different institutions. Adjustments to ensure that teams are roughly of equal size.

    Mentoring: Mentors join teams and support them to connect to the resource, scope their project and help with technical issues. Mentors focus on their teams but also support others if necessary.

    Agenda: At the end of the day teams introduce their members, share their concrete project idea and their plans for the next day (1st checkpoint).

    Duration / breaks: Social dinner at the end of the day.

  • Hackathon day 2

    Agenda: At the beginning of the day the organizers lay out the agenda for the day and reiterate the expected final submission. Teams explain their project ideas and share their plans for the current day (2nd checkpoint).

    Duration / breaks: Lunch break.

    Agenda: After lunch teams share their progress, problems they ran into and their plans for the rest of the day (3rd checkpoint)

    Agenda: Social game during the afternoon.

    Agenda: At the end of the day teams share their progress, problems they ran into and their plans for the final day (4th checkpoint).

    Duration / breaks: Social dinner at the end of the day.

  • Hackathon day 3

    Agenda: At the beginning of the day the organizers lay out the agenda for the day and reiterate the expected final submission. Teams share their progress, problems they ran into and their plans for the remainder of the time (5th checkpoint).

    Agenda: Final presentations of teams before lunch. Discussions about the content of the presented projects and problems the teams encountered during the hackathon.

    Continuity planning: Teams share presentations and code repositories through communications channel.

    Duration / breaks: Lunch break, group pictures, end of the hackathon and departure.

  • After the hackathon

    Continuity planning: Organizers distribute summary of the event directly after the hackathon and provide regular updates about the resource through communications channel.

    Stakeholder involvement: Organizers suggest for stakeholders to share publications and other outcomes they produce using the resource through communications channel.

12 decisions

When organizing a hackathon, you have to consider many aspects ranging from the theme of the event to whom to invite, where to hold the event, how to organize teams once the hackathon started and what to do after the event has ended. We organized these aspects into the following 12 key decisions that will help you organize a successful hackathon.

Goal
What do you want to achieve when organizing your hackathon?
Theme
What should be the overall theme of your hackathon?
Competition / cooperation
Should teams compete for prizes or work together?
Stakeholder involvement
How can you integrate externals into your hackathon?
Participant recruitment
Who would you like to come to your hackathon?
Specialized preparation
What will be required for teams to participate in your hackathon?
Duration / breaks
How long and intense will your hackathon be?
Ideation
When and how will teams develop ideas they can work on?
Team formation
How will likeminded participants find each other?
Agenda
What is going to happen during your hackathon?
Mentoring
How will you support the participants of your hackathon?
Continuity planning
What will happen after the hackathon is over?

Resources

The following academic publications, technical reports, sample guides by various organizations and links to hackathons we co-organized will help you to dive deeper into the world of hackathons. Each of these resources will show you a new perspective on this fascinating topic.

Peer reviewed publications
Technical reports and workshops
Guides

Here you will find guides that were developed by hackathon organizers from various backgrounds. They contain lots of useful information especially about the organizational details of an event. Please keep in mind though that they typically describe hackathons that were organized in a specific context to achive specific goals which might or might not be fitting to the aim you follow.

Hackathons

We studied () and supported the organization () of various hackathon events in different contexts. These events provided a basis for this planning kit and continue to serve as a proving ground for its feasibility.

  1. HPC in the City @SC20 hackathon (community hackathon) - November 5 - 9, 2020, online (, website)
  2. Garage48 Cyber Security 2020 (entrepreneurial hackathon) - October 23 - 25, 2020, online (, website)
  3. HACK@PEARC2020 hackathon (community hackathon) - July 27 - 29, 2020, online (, website)
  4. Hack the Crisis Afghanistan (community hackathon) - June 9 - June 12, 2020, online (, website)
  5. Hello Future_ hackathon (community hackathon) - June 23 - 30, 2020, USA and Arbat, Syria (, website)
  6. The Global Hack (community hackathon) - April 9 - 12, 2020, online (, website)
  7. Hack the Crisis India (community hackathon) - March 22 - April 5, 2020, online (, website)
  8. Pipedrive Back2Garage hackathon (corporate hackathon) - November 20 - 22, 2019, Tartu, Estonia (, website)
  9. Cloud HPC Hackathon at SC19 (community hackathon) - November 18 - 20, 2019, Denver, CO, USA (, website)
  10. World of Code (WoC) Hackathon (community hackathon) - November 1 - 3, 2019, Pittsburgh, PA, USA (, website)
  11. Garage48 Cyber Security 2019 (entrepreneurial hackathon) - October 11 - 13, 2019, Tartu, Estonia (, website)
  12. Science Gateways Hackathon at PEARC19 (community hackathon) - July 28 - 31, 2019, Chicago, IL, USA (, website)
  13. Pipedrive Back2Garage hackathon (corporate hackathon) - May 23 - 25, 2019, Tartu, Estonia (, website)
  14. Cloud HPC Hackathon at SC18 (community hackathon) - November 12 - 14, 2018, Dallas, TX, USA ()
  15. International NASA SpaceApps Challenge (community hackathon) - October 19 - 21, 2018, Tartu, Estonia (, website)
  16. Garage48 Impact Hackathon (entrepreneurial hackathon) - September 21 - 23, 2018, Oslo, Norway (, website)
  17. Science Gateways Hackathon at PEARC18 (community hackathon) - July 23 - 27, 2018, Pittsburgh, PA, USA (, website)
  18. OHBM BrainHack 2018 (community hackathon) - June 14 - 16, 2018, Singapore (, website)
  19. BioInnovation Days 2018 (entrepreneurial hackathon) - June 14 - 16, 2018, Tartu, Estonia (, website)
  20. Four hack days organized by the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) team at the Space Telescope Science Institute (community hackathon) - March 2018 - February 2019, Baltimore, MD, USA ()
  21. Microsoft OneWeek Hackathon (corporate hackathon) - July 24 – 28, 2017, Redmond, WA, USA (, news article)
  22. SciPy Hackathon (community hackathon) - July 6 - 12, 2015, Austin, TX, USA (, website)
  23. PopGen Hackathon (community hackathon) - March 16 - 20, 2015, Durham, NC, USA (, website)
  24. NSF Polar DataViz Hackathon (community hackathon) - November 3 - 4, 2014, New York, NY, USA (, website)
  25. Open Bioinformatics Foundation CodeFest (community hackathon) - July 9 - 10, 2014, Cambridge, MA, USA (, website)

Contributors

Get to know the people behind the planning kit.

Abasi-amefon Obot Affia

Abasi-amefon Obot Affia

PhD Candidate
Institute of Computer Science
University of Tartu

Chalalai Chaihirunkarn

Chalalai Chaihirunkarn

PhD Candidate
Institute for Software Research
Carnegie Mellon University

Anna Filippova

Anna Filippova

Senior Manager, Data Science
Github

James D. Herbsleb

James D. Herbsleb

Professor of Computer Science, Director
Institute for Software Research
Carnegie Mellon University

Arun Kalyanasundaram

Arun Kalyanasundaram

Software Engineer
Google

Maria Angelica Medina Angarita

Maria Angelica Medina Angarita

PhD Candidate
Institute of Computer Science
University of Tartu

Alexander Nolte

Alexander Nolte

Associate Professor of Information Systems
Institute of Computer Science
University of Tartu

Ei Pa Pa Pe-Than

Ei Pa Pa Pe-Than

Postdoctoral Associate
Institute for Software Research
Carnegie Mellon University

Erik Trainer

Erik Trainer

Principal UX Researcher
Fidelity Investments

Funders
Contributing organizations
Partners
Collaborators

Christian Bird (Microsoft Research)

Amy Cannon (Omnibond)

Kevin Ellet (Indiana University)

Linda Bailey Hayden (Elizabeth City State University)

Timothy Holston (University of Mississippi)

Rajesh Kalyanam (Purdue University)

Raimundas Matulevičius (University of Tartu)

Audris Mockus (University of Tennessee)

Sudhakar Pamidighantam (Indiana University Bloomington)

Je'aime Powell (Texas Advanced Computing Center)

Steve Scallen (Microsoft Garage)

Kathryn Traxler (Louisiana State University)

Nancy Wilkins-Diehr (Science Gateways Community Institute)

Boyd Wilson (Omnibond)

Mona Wong (San Diego Supercomputer Center)