What is a Hackathon?

Picture a busy room with small teams hard at work in clusters throughout the space. There’s intense concentration, fierce but friendly debate, and decisions being made. Above it all, the clock is ticking.

Photo by Georgia Moloney

Hacking has a bit of a bad name these days, but like any technical skill it can be used for good as well as evil. Good hacking is where we use data and computers in new and creative ways. 

While “to hack” suggests breaking into a system without permission, it also means that the hacker possesses uncommon abilities and creativity to use computers in ways that were not originally envisaged.

A hackathon combines the skills or hacking with a bit of a marathon. Participants come together into a simple space, that provides network access, power outlets for laptops, and often the basic equipment for brainstorming.

Many large organisations take time out to bring together staff for a hackathon. I’ve worked for several employers who have invested not just employee time but also real cash to fly in and accommodate staff for hackathons.

The total time available is constrained, normally to about two days. Participants are sometimes so enthusiastic that they may choose to work long hours during the hackathon although many winning teams observe that getting rest helps with clear thinking and improves overall productivity.

Coffee plus high G.I. foods are often provided to stimulate energetic work during the event. Food is important, past GovHack winner David Gregory says “The best place to meet new people is during the meal breaks. I met lots of people from other teams and just chatted finding out what a bit about them and it was a great social event as well as a productive hacking experience”.


Corporate hackathons may encourage the creation of new business opportunities leveraging the unique assets of the business. Sometimes there is new data or application programming interfaces (APIs) available that might be hacked to produce fresh insights into the organisation. Often there are new software tools available that staff are keen to try in a semi real environment, machine learning is a recent example.

Public hackathons like GovHack often simply have the objective of leveraging open government data in the quest for a better democracy. 

Worth running?

Time away from normal work and travel clearly costs money but organisations choose to run hackathons because they pay back in important ways.

Staff from different parts of the organisation meet and bond in an environment of respect and productive work. Friendships forged in the heat of a hackathon last and may lead to important new connections across the silos in a company.

Formal training events sometimes use group exercises to build teams but these often seem forced and childish. In these days of easy access to the outside via connected smartphones it can be difficult to keep attention in the room – hackathons succeed where training workshops fail.

Working under pressure in an interdisciplinary team is a wonderful source of “war stories”, both successes and misses, that add to the cultural glue that makes an organisation more of a family than just a workplace.

Worth competing?

If you have the opportunity to participate in a hackathon, take it. Time management, team organisation, data wrangling, user interface design, programming and presentation skills are all there for your professional development.

Hackathons are like a mini startup experience where failing fast is fine and participation is always positive.

Written by Peter Marks for GovHack.
Peter Marks is a software developer and technology analyst.
He is a regular contributor to ABC Radio National and blogs at http://blog.marxy.org