Rise of the Hackathon

Education and problem-solving benefit from the increasing use of hackathons, which are multi-day collaborative coding events. Popular among students, hackathons also have been put to use to tackle big data and sustainability.

“Hackathons” represent a growing trend in both education and problem-solving.

.Students gather at Rice University for the third-annual HackRice event, one of many student-led hackathons. Image Credit: Sarah Frazier.

Students gather at Rice University for the third-annual HackRice event, one of many student-led hackathons. Image Credit: Sarah Frazier.

These multi-day events, organized for collaborative computer programming projects, can take on many forms – from those for students to those for developers, and from events designed to develop a product to programming free-for-alls.

One of the biggest student hackathons, MHacks, drew in about 1,200 participants in January (up from 550 in February 2013). Many think that the increase in number and visibility of hackathons (especially student hackathons) is related to the increasing number of undergraduate students enrolled in computer science programs.

What’s so great about having a few dozen (or several hundred) hackers work on the same problem for 24 to 48 hours?

“This way of problem-solving has the effect of taking subjects, issues and problems and viewing them from multiple angles and from multiple backgrounds,” said Dan Williams, organizer of the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) Appathon.

“Hackathons are an opportunity to apply new thinking to problems that our traditional processes may miss,” said Beth Beck, manager of the Open Innovations program at NASA. “We design NASA challenges that complement our missions, expose data sets, models and tools related to each challenge, and engage the public to create solutions.”

Some hackathons focus on a theme or a specific problem. Hackathons focusing on Earth observation, big data, and sustainability are common. Some of these hackathons are put on by public institutions whose work falls into the same domain. Others, like the CleanWeb hackathons, are run by private organizations.

This year’s Space Apps hackathon (put on by NASA) had an “EarthWatch” category of challenges. About 35 percent of projects submitted were Earth science-based, according to Beck.

Williams says Earth science is well-suited to hackathon-style problem-solving.

“Earth science is no stranger to ‘big data’, and is currently benefiting from an explosion in data from new and relatively inexpensive sensors,” Williams said.

“With the influx of data comes a wealth of new opportunities to apply new thinking, methodologies, and analysis techniques to realize things we might not have even thought about yet. Hackathons give academics, developers and everyone else a chance to join in and the issues and opportunities that new (and old) Earth science data can provide.”

GEO has extended the hackathon concept to create a long-term app development contest. Its first-ever Appathon is being held through Aug. 31 to encourage development of apps in the nine Societal Benefit Areas.

Williams says the long-form event is necessary for the complexity of the subject matter.

“An extended form of hackathon, such as the GEO Appathon, allows for much bigger data sets, issues, and outcomes to be analyzed and solved,” he said. “The huge Earth observation data opportunities presented in the GEO Appathon are suited to a long-term thinking, designing and solving process.”