What is a hackday? [+video]
In government, health and third sector circles, hackdays are becoming recognised as a valuable means of stimulating thinking about new and better ways of delivering public services, enabled by digital technology.
Which might come as a surprise to anyone assuming that a ‘hackday’ must be about breaking into high security computers and causing havoc.
In fact, hackdays are increasingly being used to create social good, bringing together groups of people with a range of skills to explore and solve problems, research and develop new ideas, and deliver solutions, often in the form of a website, web tool or ‘app’.
Or, as a typical hackday participant might put it: ‘It’s where a group of people get together in a room, get creative and build some cool stuff in a day or weekend.’ This is intense creativity, and beer, pizza, coffee, and high-energy drinks are as necessary as good quality broadband. Often the venue is borrowed from a university or business and the energy boosting refreshments provided by a sponsor who gets the benefits of participation (and a bit of borrowed ‘cool’) for a vanishingly small investment. Sponsors may also provide the datasets that provide the raw material for teams to work with.
Events usually start with a briefing or brainstorm where ideas are generated around a theme or purpose. Our video was made at #smarthack, an event linked to work going on in Birmingham to explore how open data and ‘smart city’ technologies can help meet some of the challenges the city is facing.
The initial discussion generates ideas, and groups form to take these forward, comprising web coders, designers, researchers, business brains and subject experts.
The bulk of the time at a hack day is spent researching, thinking, designing, coding, engineering, refining, and building prototype solutions or ideas. As with any creative activity, teams will often find themselves pulling their idea completely apart halfway through, before setting off again, sometimes in a completely different direction. At the end of the hack, each group gives a short presentation of their work to the group of fellow “hackers”, sponsors, judges and others.
Hackdays are exciting and stimulating and often quite competitive, and there may be prizes offered, although for most participants, the buzz, the contacts, the learning and the new ideas are reward enough.
The ideas and prototypes produced at the event may be taken forward by the event hosts or sponsors, the developer teams taking part, or other interests. The greatest value of the experience for everyone, however, is to stimulate new thinking. The fruits of a day or weekend spent fermenting ideas, and seeing them turning into reality, will almost certainly freshen participants’ approaches to the problems that are blocking progress in the ‘day job’.
Most of those who participate in hackdays would no more go to a traditional conference than they would eat rubber chicken. But senior managers more used to traditional milieus would do well to find a hackday near them, put on their jeans, and get themselves involved (maybe bringing along the beer and pizza too).
They will find the creative frenzy, the, enthusiasm, and the freedom to make something happen “now” while it can really make a difference, hugely rewarding.
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