Reflections on my first hackathon

buildthenewslogoOn the weekend of 22/23 February, I took part in Build the News – the first ever coding event organised by The Times and The Sunday Times. This two-day “hackathon” brought together 10 teams of student journalists and developers who were tasked with creating a digital journalism product in one of the four categories: 

  • Stretch (or how to develop long form journalism across multiple devices),
  • Crowd (or how to develop a tool or platform that allows effective campaigning),
  • Tactile (or re-thinking Sunday paper reading/sharing experience),
  • Noise (or how to facilitate finding the details and people that matter around big events and moments).

It was the first time I got a chance to participate in a hackathon and surely not the last one. Inspiring in many ways, it was an eye-opener to how solutions are born to problems you face every day as a journalist.


Photo: MattieTK (Flickr)

So why hack?

Firstly because you stand a chance to tackle the knottiest problems you have always wanted solved. Who said you can’t be the first one to come up with a solution? This way you serve yourself and others, and learn loads in the process, simply by picking others’ brains.

Secondly, because only seated in front of a task you can unleash the creativity you never suspected yourself of. You are given 48h to brainstorm, build and refine a product. Unlike any other day, you can focus on doing just this so all your brainpower gets narrowed down onto this one particular task. It’s imperative to use it well.

And finally, for fun, because teamwork and filling the gaps others have difficulty with is very rewarding.

What to keep in mind?

Short and intense, hackathons are inherently unpredictable. You might prepare, start toying with an idea in your head, and yet end up doing a totally different thing. So don’t get too attached to your pre-conceived no-matter-how-awesome plans. They are likely to change in the meantime.

Set realistic expectations. Think big but make sure you account for what you can achieve in the given time frame without constraining your creativity.

And just because time is so scarce, identify the problem as accurately as possible and define the amount of detail you want to (and can) go into before you find yourself tangled in too many meandrous yet insignificant elements of your project.

Learn from others. Hackathons are usually a unique mix of people who decide to give their time and skill to solve different problems. Developer community, unlike its journalistic counterpart, is very open to sharing and exchanging ideas so make sure you listen up when they start recommending apps, software and tutorial websites. API? GitHub? JS? Find out what they are.

Don’t be afraid of launching your project for public scrutiny. Feedback and self-reflection are key to taking it to another level. Shed all your journalistic assumptions of keeping your idea exclusive and allow others to chip in, even if they pulverise your idea. It’s better to know it’s not working out right up front.

Refuel often. Breaks for meals and nibbles (and fresh air) are crucial to keep your inventiveness going.

Do get a developer for your team. Your idea might be brilliant, yet it won’t see the light of the day until a code-savvy person blesses it as feasible.
Interhacktives-build-the-news If you are interested in the project my friends from MA Interactive Journalism and I developed for the Build the News hackathon, take a look at our tumblr – it documents the whole process.