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What to expect at a civic hackathon
civic hacking
code for dc

I hear that attending a hackathon can be intimidating. Don't be intimidated. At least not by the Tech Lady Hackathon or Code for DC hacknights. I attend and organize civic hackathons here in DC, which can differ significantly from big competition-style hackathons, but this is what you should expect from most civic hackathons.

Should I go to a hackathon if I'm not a hacker?

When we say "hacking," we mean to creatively build something, not attack someone's network. Read more in Code for America's blog post: What is a civic hacker? At civic hackathons, we're usually working on projects to improve government services, provide services to the public that we think should exist and don't, or analyzing/working with government data.

I often tell folks that we are building a website or app just like most organizations, so we need a lot of different people's skills, in addition to coders and engineers. We need communications folks to edit and improve the messaging or promote the project, UX experts and people with a keen eye to test the site (how easy is it to use? where do you get confused?), designers, digital strategists, social media experts, subject matter experts, data analysts (anything from statistical analysis to data entry, spreadsheet organizing, etc.), and more.

At my first hackathon, I wrote and edited the text that explains Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, or ANCs (DC's most local form of government), for the ANC Finder project (check it out by scrolling down on the homepage). To submit my content and edits, I needed to learn GitHub, a site that helps projects collaborate with version control, and the Code for DC folks taught me how to use it. That's why I always offer a GitHub 101 at the beginning of my hackathons (including this Saturday's Tech Lady Hackathon).

What should I bring? How should I prep?

Bring your laptop and your willingness to dive in, help out, and learn. That's it.

You could check out Code Academy if you really want to do something to prepare, but again, not everyone needs to be a coder.

What should I expect?

For my hackathons, the day follows a similar pattern:

  • Arrive, chat with folks (or sit in the corner and scowl at your laptop like me).
  • Announcements start: someone introduces the purpose of the hackathon and administrative info.
  • Pitches! Hackathons are usually divided into several different projects that you'll work on throughout the day. Project leads pitch their project to the group by briefly describing their goals, where the project currently stands, what they want to work on today, and the kinds of skills they need.
  • Announcements end and people break off to join a project they found interesting. If you're unsure of what to do and you're at one of my events, I will have notes on the projects and can help you choose one.
  • At the end of the day, people usually gather to share what they accomplished. The point isn't to build a whole new app in a day, but to jumpstart a project or help an ongoing community project take a giant leap forward.

If you join a project and find that it's not a good fit for your skills or interests, don't worry; you can change projects at any point. Just expect a little bit of chaos as projects get organized and project leaders sort out their new team's skills and what they can likely accomplish for the day.

Questions? Comments? I'm happy to answer questions at @leahbannon.

Oh, and one more thing: If you email any of the organizers at this stage in the game, you may not get an answer. Just about all your questions can be answered on the event page (location, time, etc.). If you absolutely can't find satisfaction there, a tweet is much better than email! <3