How should a hackday be run?

I’m working with a large public-sector organisation who have a considerable — and potentially very useful — body of data. They’re keen to open it up, and would like to encourage people to use it by having a hack event of some kind. At the same time, it’s gratifying that they’re clear that they don’t wish to unfairly exploit anyone.

We’re considering a number of options, and would welcome comments and additional suggestions.

The event could be held in the Midlands; over one day or two, on weekdays, weekend, or Friday-Saturday. Or a competition could be announced online, with a virtual or real-life “dragons den” type event, for people to present things they’ve worked on at home.

Cray-2 super computer

You won’t need one of these to take part…
Computer Museum: Cray-2 by cmnit, on Flickr, CC-BY

Should we set a specific challenge, or just ask people to do something interesting with the data?

I’ve suggested prizes might be offered for both the most compete solution, and the best idea, whether compete or not. There might be prizes in other categories, such as the best idea by a young person or the most accessible product, or different categories for commercial and hobbyist entrants.

The data holders might also like to consider developing business relationships to the developers of one or more of the products, separate to any prize giving; rights in all the entries would of course remain with their developers, otherwise.

How would you like such an event to happen? We’re aware of the Hackday Manifesto, but what else is best practice, and what other pitfalls should be avoided?

Over to you…

13 thoughts on “How should a hackday be run?

    1. Andy Mabbett Post author

      Good question, Sam. I think, for the data owners (not that I speak for them), it woud mean one or more of:

      • Raisied awareness of the data and how to access it
      • Inreasing use of the data
      • Innovative use of the data
      • Innovative mashing of the data with other data sets
      • Improved services to the organisation’s customers
      • Creation of relationships with voluntary and public sector developers

      Plus some sector-specific stuff which I can’t go into without making it obvious who they are.

  1. Terence Eden

    As others have pointed out – what do they want to get out of it.

    A large part is expectation settings. The organisers have to be aware that they’re not going to get perfect software, it may not meet their goals, it may even not be possible to create anything useful.

    They also need to be prepared for unvarnished criticism. These aren’t people pitching for a job, they’ve no vested interest in keeping you sweet.

    Prizes need to be proportionate and divideable. If a team of 3 win – how do you split an Xbox? Will the atmosphere change if people are competeing for a holiday in Barbados?

    Finally, you’re asking people to give up a free weekend, or a day of paid employment. What do they get out of it? Ok, maybe a line on the CV if they win, and a free lunch of pizza and Pepsi. Would that convince you to give up a weekend?

  2. James Cattell

    Does the “large public sector organisation” in question have an Information Asset Register, otherwise known as a data catalogue? Or have they already prepared the data to use at the hackday?

    If not, you’re going to need 2 or 3 really interesting data sets. In my limited experience, the more interesting the data, the more challenging it is to open up.

    As we experienced at the Government Open Data Hackday in Birmingham this year, the useful data was poorly formatted. We spent a lot of time re-formatting before it could be visualised.

    Check for details and tweet Dr.Andy Pryke for more.

  3. Pingback: How should a hackday be run via Andy… « Kind of Digital Exchange

  4. Simon Whitehouse

    Hi Andy

    I’ve a few thoughts in addition to those people have already posted.

    I’d be a little bit concerned that most of the focus in the success criteria is on the data rather than the purpose they want to see it put to. I’d ask them:

    What are the biggest challenges this organisation faces that they think might be solved by open data?
    Who have they got who can come along and set some challenges for people to try and tackle?

    Do you want this to be a hack day where people come along in their spare time or is it a business opportunity for people to present some ideas to maybe be taken further by the organisation? I think you want to be very clear which it is so that people know what they might get out of it and whether it’s for them.

    Well done for asking these questions beforehand and good luck with it. It should be fun.


    1. Andy Mabbett Post author

      Thanks Simon, good points. To reiterate, I did say the list of possible outcomes was my interpretation. See also “sector specific” stuff 😉

      As for the audience, it could be a mix, but who’d be interested and what each side would want is that’s one of the things I hope to determine here. People can answer for either camp, and say which they’re in.

  5. Pauline Roche

    Hi Andy

    I’m interested in your line: “Creation of relationships with voluntary and public sector developers” as I’m keen to make relationships myself with these sorts of developers for the benefit of voluntary and community organisations, and other non-profits who (mostly) don’t have access to the financial resources of public and private sector orgs.

    So my question is, in the planning and executing of this event, and afterwards, would these ‘data owners’ be interested in helping to build longer-term relationships with developers who might then support the afore-mentioned voluntary and community organisations, and other non-profits to access and use this data (if appropriate) and other datasets?



  6. Vicky Sargent

    Hi Andy

    Lots of useful points, but its Simon’s that resonates most with me: ‘……most of the focus in the success criteria is on the data rather than the purpose they want to see it put to……’

    It depresses me that so many organisations start their open data journeys with a hackday. Its exactly the same mistake organisations make when starting a business change project with some ‘solve everything’ IT solution.

    Unless managers and decision-makers understand what open data is, and what open data publishing can achieve, how it sits within the wider business context, and how the outputs of hackdays can be fairly procured from developers, they will simply create frustration, because they won’t achieve anything useful.

    The tech end of the open data thing is the easy bit, perhaps why so many organisations tend to start there. The hard bit is creating something of business value that can be exploited by the organisation while properly rewarding developers.


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