What to expect when attending your first hackathon

by Ashley Nguyen
Oct 30, 2018 in Digital Journalism

Attending a hackathon can be an exciting way to develop ideas with others and watch them come to life. Developers code for hours. Designers make the projects visually appealing. Data wranglers break down dense information.

But hackathons are also for journalists. Even if you’re a traditional print journalist or editor, everybody has their place at hackathons.

Every team needs a storyteller. You could write text for a project’s website or app or build a narrative to present the project to peers at the end of the event. And, with the growing number of multitalented reporters, you might be the one writing lines of code, parsing data and designing.

“Hackathons are one of the best ways to understand how creation happens,” said Erika Owens, a program manager for Knight-Mozilla OpenNews. “When hackathons work really well, it’s a group of people around the table, and each person brings a different skill set.”

If you’re a journalist who wants to experiment with digital storytelling but are slightly intimidated by working with your news outlet’s tech team, try going to a hackathon. They can serve as a small test environment for what it’s like to develop an idea with others.

“Even in a newsroom, we work very siloed,” Owens said. “We don’t always know what our coworkers are doing. A hackathon is a quick way to work on a small project and see how we all contribute and be able to apply that knowledge later, so you know how to structure a question when you tap a designer or a developer on the shoulder for help.”

Here’s what to expect when you attend your first hackathon:

Where to find a hackathon to attend

Keep an eye on local chapters of the Online News Association, Hacks/Hackers, the Open Knowledge Foundation and “Code For” brigades. All four organizations have international communities, and they often hold events that might be closer to your city. Some local museums, NGOs and governments also host hackathons, so follow them on Facebook or Twitter to stay up to date.

News organizations are also active in this event sphere, so if you’re willing to travel to a major city, keep tabs on who’s doing what. (This American Life held an audio hackathon in early September 2015, Fusion hosted the RiseUp hackathon last year in New York and Miami, and BBC News Labs hosts a series of #newsHACKS events in London and a smattering of other cities.)

If you’re daring enough to convince your boss, create a hackathon for your newsroom. Check out this blueprint for designing hackathons for best practices and ways to get started.

Time commitment

Once you find a hackathon and arrive, it’s time to get comfortable. Hackathons can last anywhere from several hours, like a work day, to a few days, like a weekend. Remember that you’ll be working on a team to produce a semi-finished project, so if you can’t attend the entire event, you might be leaving your teammates in a pinch by dashing out early. Don’t be deterred though: As long as you let organizers and teammates know ahead of time, you’ll be fine.


All hackathon organizers structure teams in a different way. Here are a few situations to expect:

  • Free form teams: You get to the hackathon, they explain the schedule and then ask you to form your own team. It might feel awkward to approach others, but just try to find a group of people who will benefit from your skills.
  • Teams formed beforehand: Hackathons are usually promoted at least a couple months before the scheduled date. Find someone to pair up with so you’re not going into the process alone. If the event page has a link to HackDash or Devpost project pages, see if participants are already posting ideas. If you find something you can contribute to, latch onto that team.
  • Organizers create the teams: When you register for a hackathon, they might ask what type of skills you have. This helps the organizers create balanced teams (i.e. there are coders, journalists, designers and project managers).
  • Form teams around a pitch the day of: Hackathons with a central theme might ask participants to pitch their ideas at the beginning of the event. After the pitches, others can join a team based on where they can lend the most value.

Show off the fruits of your labor

During the project creation period of your hackathon, your team should be thinking about the presentation too. Once time’s up, you’ll have to explain what you’ve made to your fellow participants. Decide who will speak, who should make slides and assign someone to demo the project.

Organizers might ask you to create a page on HackDash or Devpost, which will help you keep in touch with teammates after the event, remember what you made and allow you to show friends and co-workers what actually transpired at the hackathon.

Remember, you add value

Keep in mind that there are hard tech skills and soft tech skills. Jeanne Brooks, the director of global communities at DataKind and hackathon design expert, values both.

“[Technology is] anything from computer science to tweeting,” Brooks said. “It doesn’t require this master’s level degree in computer science or understanding how to code in three languages in order to build something online. All of us who are part of the technology ecosystem play an equally important role in the development of a new solution.”

Have advice for other first-time hackathon attendees? Let us know on Twitter @IJNet.

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via TechCrunch.