Hackathons – for good?

In current media and popular culture hacking is perceived as something dark, juvenile and often dangerous and illegal. Hackathons, in which hackers, coders and developers come together over a specified time (around 48 h) to develop product ideas around a given topic are one part of this culture. DePasse et.al. ( 2014, 261) describe the development of hackathons: “These hackathons were popularized in the early 2000s by the technology community as a forum for quickly developing solutions in short periods of focused innovation.”Sometime people take part for the prizes, sometimes it is all about the burst of energy that can come from getting a lot of creative energy going. These caffeine-fuelled get-togethers are somewhat clouded in mystery for people who are not part of this culture and are often portrayed as a dark, serious affair – with many wires sticking out.

But is this image still true? In this post I want to start looking into ‘hacks for good’, hackathons initiated by charities, universities and communities that do have health-related topics. Söderberg and Delfanti claim that through the rise of “hackerspaces” and “makerspaces”:

“The creation of ‘‘hackerspaces’’ or ‘‘makerspaces’’ in cities around the world has facilitated the spread of hacker practices to new fields of engagement, such as open hardware development and do-it-yourself (DIY) biology.” (Söderberg; Delfanti, 2015, 793)

For me the equation between hackerspaces and makerspaces indicates an equation of software hacking and hardware hacking as equal partners in the hacking movement, a development echoed also by Komssi et.al. (2015, 62): “Even some noncoding events are promoted as hackathons.” (Komssi et.al, 2015, 62) In this overview I will incorporate hackathons that are aimed at non-coders, but will leave out the area of biohacking or food-hacking as this is a very specialised area of hacking, which may lead to far away from dementia and the overall hacking culture.

The other interesting point within this observation is the trend towards “new fields of engagement”, which I will look into further with case studies of current hackathons.

The MIT Hacking Medicine movement transfers the original setup of hackathons into the field of medicine: “MIT Hacking Medicine has extended the hackathon model to address the more complex healthcare environment. Events include the many diverse stakeholders across healthcare regulation,
delivery, payment, and product development.” (DePasse et.al, 2014, 261)

One of the hacks I want to use as a case study, even though I have not been involved myself, is the “Make the breast pump not suck” event 2014 organised by the MIT Media Lab. For me this one stood out, not only because of the fun title, but also because of the communication of the event. From the set out, people managing the event were experts in the area, who made sure to bring in other experts – in this case mothers who disliked using breastpumps – to inform the participants and to judge the resulting designs. The imagery used to promote this event differs strongly from former underground hacks, with references to popular geek culture.

Another hack relevant to this research project is the Create4Dementia Hackathon 2015 in Newcastle that I attended. Organised partly by the Digital Interaction Culture Lab at Newcastle University it was a very multi-disciplinary event from the outset. It was less entrepreneurial, but aimed to bring innovative ideas into research groups and just develop ideas others could work from.

For the dementia and design blog I already wrote a post about hackathons for health and incorporated the DementiaHack which took part simultaneously in London and Toronto. The winning concept Careumbrella has been claimed to be turned into a marketable product, but this has not been launched yet.

In their article on the subject, Komssi et.al. (2015, 60) take a very entrepreneurial view on hackathons and outline that:

“You can view hackathons as an engineering solution to the fundamental business problem of how to make revenue from an idea, spanning the phases from creating the idea to producing a software prototype. Hackathons are also useful as social and educational events.”

But what is the result of a hackathon? Komssi et.al. highlight a social and personal side which has been mentioned by others authors as well, but what are the tangible results? DePasse et.al. (2104, 263) see a positive outcome through the engagement with the user: “Finally, focusing on the end-user from the onset of technology development allows for cultural contextualization.” Even though hackathons are aimed towards product development, mostly the result are working prototypes, which according to Komssi et. al. (2015, 61) ” show only a small number of working features; the aim is to demonstrate the concept and its value.” Even though initiatives such as pitches to investors are often given, the products developed during hackathons rarely make it into productable goods, as observed e.g. by Komssi et.al. (2015, 65): “However, the results have thus far rarely been exploited commercially. Something is still missing from the ‘hackathon method’.”

In their evaluation of the MIT Hacking Medicine scheme, DePasse et. al. (2014, 262) show a different outlook on the success of hackathons:

“The hackathon is not meant to be a fully independent process. Medical hackathons are meant to be catalytic processes, and teams are ideally provided access to mentorship networks and funding opportunities such as grants and/or accelerator/incubator programs to propel their concept forward. Teams arising from these events need to enter fertile follow-on processes to develop into successful startup companies.”

Nonetheless hacking itself and the methods and methodologies employed by hackers and during the hackathons are developed further and are subject to a commercialisation:

Hacker practices and innovations are adopted, adapted, and repurposed by corporate and state institutions on a regular basis, thus made to serve other ends than the (emancipatory) ones claimed at the outset. (Söderberg; Delfanti, 2015, 794)

Questions arising from my initial research so far are: Do the new types of Hackathons constitute an evolution of the old ones or are they a sign of something new? Do Hackathons bring practical results that can be used within the health sector or does the impact mainly consist of personal development and a new way of approaching a problem area?


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