Home > data science, hackathon, modeling, musing > Let’s enjoy the backlash against hackathons

Let’s enjoy the backlash against hackathons

June 2, 2013

As much as I have loved my DataKind hackathons, where I get to meet a bunch of friendly nerds who are spend their weekend trying to solve problems using technology, I also have my reservations about the whole weekend hackathon culture, especially when:

  1. It’s a competition, so really you’re not solving problems as much as boasting, and/or
  2. you’re trying to solve a problem that nobody really cares about but which might make someone money, so you’re essentially working for free for a future VC asshole, and/or
  3. you kind of solve a problem that matters, but only for people like you (example below).

As Jake Porway mentions in this fine piece, having data and good intentions do not mean you can get serious results over a weekend. From his essay:

Without subject matter experts available to articulate problems in advance, you get results like those from the Reinvent Green Hackathon. Reinvent Green was a city initiative in NYC aimed at having technologists improve sustainability in New York. Winners of this hackathon included an app to help cyclists “bikepool” together and a farmer’s market inventory app. These apps are great on their own, but they don’t solve the city’s sustainability problems. They solve the participants’ problems because as a young affluent hacker, my problem isn’t improving the city’s recycling programs, it’s finding kale on Saturdays.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve made some good friends and created some great collaborations via hackathons (and especially via Jake). But it only gets good when there’s major planning beforehand, a real goal, and serious follow-up. Actually a weekend hackathon is, at best, a platform from which to launch something more serious and sustained.

People who don’t get that are there for something other than that. What is it? Maybe this parody hackathon announcement can tell us.

It’s called National Day of Hacking Your Own Assumptions and Entitlement, and it has a bunch of hilarious and spot-on satirical commentary, including this definition of a hackathon:

Basically, a bunch of pallid millenials cram in a room and do computer junk. Harmless, but very exciting to the people who make money off the results.

This question from a putative participant of an “entrepreneur”-style hackathon:

“Why do we insist on applying a moral or altruistic gloss to our moneymaking ventures?”

And the internal thought process of a participant in a White House-sponsored hackathon:

I realized, especially in the wake of the White House murdering Aaron Swartz, persecuting/torturing Bradley Manning and threatening Jeremy Hammond with decades behind bars for pursuit of open information and government/corporate accountability that really, no-one who calls her or himself a “hacker” has any business partnering with an entity as authoritarian, secretive and tyrannical as the White House– unless of course you’re just a piece-of-shit money-grubbing disingenuous bootlicker who uses the mantle of “hackerdom” to add a thrilling and unjustified outlaw sheen to your dull life of careerist keyboard-poking for the status quo.

  1. June 2, 2013 at 8:08 am

    Hear hear!!! I LOVE IT -> “unless of course you’re just a piece-of-shit money-grubbing disingenuous bootlicker” IMO – my status as a nerd has changed from being a “closed door person, no one wanted to talk too unless there was a problem” to a ROCK STAR (why) MONEY – now when Data Science and Big Data aren’t BUZZ WORDS – I’ll go back to being a “closed door person, no one wanted to talk too unless there was a problem” – Hack a thon – MOCO – Big Data -> It’s all about making a buck – in the future – things will go back to how it was BUT have to admit I do appreciate the spotlight on STEM – if we get more people interested in the sciences and math – maybe it will be worth it!

    What ticks me off about this is the hacker ususally does it for the love of pushing his/her talents not money but as you say about what they are accomplishing in these hack-a-thons -> “Harmless, but very exciting to the people who make money off the results.”


  2. Swish
    June 2, 2013 at 12:33 pm

    The comparison at the end is very insulting to Aaron’s memory. Not to mention deeply dishonest about basic facts.


  3. June 2, 2013 at 1:01 pm

    Agree, as I write about the “healthcare” hackathons and the sponsors and those making money is the key here. I called it “code for cash” and insurance companies like and sponsor these, they get “cheap” code basically. Also I have asked the question about some of the apps and models that are out there, do they all have to sell your data to stay in business? Could they stand alone and market and sell a device and/or software and show profit? Some of this I think gets promoted at such events a little. It doesn’t do a lot for developers for their future if a big corporation buys their code either. I do agree with you too though on meeting others for networking though, that is great.


  4. June 2, 2013 at 5:33 pm

    This post is great, thank you for bringing up the hackathon model. I have participated in many hackathons and had good experiences at these events; the spaces are nice, the technologists are engaged and competent. Plenty of opportunities to learn about industries, new techniques and meet more technologists.
    However, OP has hit on an issue that has also bothered me, namely what is the outcome of the effort. At the end of the day how is the technical effort transferred out of the prototype into the real world? Without continuation plans, the developed tech can be easily lost and as OP says “what’s really accomplished?”
    I think the missing component of the hackathon model is a guaranteed selection of a product that will be incorporated into a larger system. What may be even more interesting is creating a captive hackathon model. A single sponsor organization hosts a hackathon with the intention of integrating that code into a production level capability.


  5. curlydan
    June 3, 2013 at 4:35 pm

    As a colleague pointed out to me a few months ago, this type of activity could be considered “nerd sniping” as noted in this xkcd cartoon. Find nerds and use them for your entertainment or financial gain.



  6. E.L. Wisty
    June 6, 2013 at 12:42 pm

    Reblogged this on Pink Iguana.


  7. omouse
    June 6, 2013 at 2:22 pm

    The lack of stakeholders and no customers at these hackathons means that the efforts are self-guided and hence they target whatever interests the developer. If there were some experts available with some ideas provided you could have some simple features banged out in a weekend but they would be at least on the right track.

    The goal of most hackathons is too short-sighted to do that.

    Their purpose isn’t only to do something great but it’s also to hack on what YOU want rather than what some random client/customer/stakeholder wants.


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