9 things you need to know about Hacks

Hacks are a new way for us in the third sector of approaching challenging social issues, by working in teams with people from different sectors and by harnessing technology - here's some insights from our experiences of them

Participants from Brum City Drive 2017 Hack, which we ran at Impact Hub Birmingham 
  1. What is a hack/hackathon?

Hackathons, or to use the more well-known abbreviation, ‘Hacks’, are a fairly new concept to most people in the UK third sector.

Originating in the software development industry, hacks are events where people from different backgrounds and sectors choose to get together with others, or are encouraged to come together, to work intensively in teams to develop solutions to problems. One goal has been to make useful software which has the possibility of being commercialised.

  1. Why have a hack?

“Starting in the mid to late 2000s, hackathons became significantly more widespread, and began to be increasingly viewed by companies and venture capitalists as a way to quickly develop new software technologies, and to locate new areas for innovation and funding … Hackathons aimed at improvements to city local services are increasing, with one of the London Councils (Hackney) creating a number of successful local solutions on a 2 Day Hackney-thon. There have also been a number of hackathons devoted to improving education…” – from Hackathon, Wikipedia

  1. Our involvement in hacks

Pauline Roche and Ted Ryan of RnR Organisation have been participating as voluntary sector subject matter experts in hacks and similar exploratory events like design sprints, unconferences and data dives for the past several years, in Birmingham and elsewhere in the UK.

“We find that working on challenging issues in teams with a combination of people with technical skills, people who are knowledgeable about the issue, researchers etc, brings a different and new dynamic to approaching and identifying possible solutions to the kind of social issues with which we in the sector are familiar. You can read more about the kind of events in which we’ve taken part in this area in this blogpost”

  1. Differences between hacks and more traditional events

The main differences between hacks and other issue-based events are its length, the opportunity to meet other participants before the main event, lack of agenda, lack of keynotes, lack of fixed mealtimes, giving/getting feedback.

Unlike more traditional conferences and similar events, Hacks are usually held over 24-48 hours, sometimes even going on for a week, and they assume active participation by all attendees. The main event is often preceded by a get together where potential attendees spend a few hours meeting each other with a view to finding out what knowledge, skills and interests they each have which could contribute to a diverse team at a hack.

At the hack itself there are no keynote speakers; instead, people ‘pitch’ the issue they want to work on and then other attendees decide, having heard the pitches, which of those teams they want to join. There are no fixed meal breaks so the creative flow isn’t interrupted – instead, refreshments are made available during the hack so people can take breaks when they feel the need. However, opportunities are provided during the event, not just at the end, for teams to check-in/feedback to the whole event,  sometimes verbally, sometimes using graphics, and respond to questions and comments on their progress.

  1. Things to bring to a hack

  • Wifi-enabled devices (laptops, tablets, smartphones) as well as extension cables and memory sticks

  • Your experience

  • An open mind

  • Design thinking and other information research skills

  • Creativity

 

  1. Participating remotely

Through the use of social media and other collaborative technology, you can be part of a hack even if you’re not physically in the room.

Most hacks have a hashtag e.g. #HackMentalHealth, and people elsewhere in the country (or the world) can join in the event remotely, using the hashtag to ask questions, make comments, share documents etc as well as responding to people tweeting from the hack.

  1. Typical hack schedule

  • Night before hack (or a few days before): Pre-meeting of potential participants. Attending the pre-meeting doesn’t mean you have to come to the hack – it’s a chance to see what it’s about, meet people, share ideas.

  • Start of event: Participants arrive at venue and register, introductions, pitches, teams form, hacking begins

  • Mid-event: Check-in/Feedback session

  • End of event: Teams present/demonstrate their work/findings

 

  1. After the hack

There may be follow-up events, more hacks and opportunities for hack participants to keep working on the issues.

Many people go to hacks on a regular basis, sharing their skills and knowledge with others. One place where developers find out about upcoming hacks is here

  1. Want to get involved with hacks in the voluntary sector?

We’re planning to do more hacks in the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector, particularly with smaller organisations in the West Midlands.

We’re collating a list of interested parties – get in touch with us if you’d like to be part of one, whether you’re in the sector as a chief officer/worker/volunteer/trustee, or in other sectors as a developer, designer, data analyst, researcher, subject expert, entrepreneur, academic or student and we’ll keep you up to date with developments.

All events will be announced via our monthly newsletter Digital WM News.

 

More reading and a podcast

Hack weekends: 5 tips on keeping the momentum going, (Sept 2012)

Because not all the smart people work for you… (Dec 2012)

Not a coder? How to do well at hackathons (Oct 2013)

Charity Hack brings tech innovation to Scotland’s third sector (Sept 2015)

‘Sheffugees’ hack helps asylum-seekers and refugees (Feb 2016)

Planning Your Own Tech Event [podcast](Aug 2017)

Blog: Wider Engagement and Fresh Ideas Needed in Your City? A City Data Hack is a Great Place Start (May 2018)