A little over two weeks ago, I headed for Tanzania with a bit of stress in my head. Hack In The Box, and our RHoKSec hackathon, were fast approaching and we only had a single sign up on the Eventbrite. It’s a little hard to run a hackathon with just one participant and two organizers. There wasn’t a whole lot I could do about the sign up numbers while I was busy on the Tanzanian Taarifa deployment project, but I posted a few blog posts, tweeted a bunch of “Come Join Us!” tweets, and prayed for more sign ups.
The day of the hackathon arrived and we still only had ONE signup on Eventbrite. My nightmare had come true. It seemed like this was going to be the first truly failed hackathon in my 4 year hackathon organizing career. But then, it wasn’t.
First off, kudos and many thanks to the organizers of Hack In The Box and Haxpo for speaking directly to many, many attendees at the conference. Before noon, they had physically brought me four live bodies to assail with the backstories about our challenges. The crew decided unanimously to work on the Network in a Jungle challenge. Before long, we had the first ideas and recommendations up in the hackpad.
As the day wore on, I tweeted some more, showed pictures of the FirefoxOS phones that Mozilla donated for prizes, and basically bigged up the hackathon.
In the afternoon, a few more people came by, and then our friends at Glasgow University Tech Society joined in remotely. Richard Karus, one of the Scotland Hacks members jumped in to work on a challenge remotely, too. Paul Mason from Scotland Hacks got busy on Twitter and then put his head down into the Education Challenges, as well.
On Friday morning, upon arriving at Beurs van Berlage, the venue for Hack In The Box, I ran around the building putting up new directional posters to help people find the room. That worked a treat. Lots more people showed up in our odd corner of the first floor, mostly without being entirely clear on what it was they had showed up for. With each new group of two or three people, I’d show them the hackpad and give a spiel about all the challenges. Most of the time, they’d sit down and get some work done. Sometimes they’d say thank you and wander off again.
What we didn’t expect was how many people would wander off and get busy with the challenges later. At one point, we had only five people in the room, but 19 different people actively adding information into the hackpads.
In the end we got new documentation, new bug reports, new educational resources, lots of ideas for the Jungle Network challenge, and a decent sized chunk of code for Firefox phones.
The room was nearly empty, but in terms of actual progress on the challenges we set, the hackathon was decidedly a success. I’d love to try something like this at a conference again. It would be good to do something like this in a largish area in the main expo hall, perhaps, or just off the expo hall where it might be a tad quieter but still easy to find.
The lesson of the day is that you can get a lot of work done and draw new volunteers into your projects with a “do as much as you like” hackathon at a conference.