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An Introduction to Hackathons

POV Hackathon working

I participated in a hackathon last weekend run in conjunction with the PBS Documentary series, POV and held at the NY Media Center (where Radish Lab got it’s start!). The goal was to reinvent the documentary for the web. Our project was a tool to access Google News headlines and match them with videos from Question Bridge, an existing library of conversations between black males. The larger aim was to frame trending media narratives in a larger context and format that package for sharing on social media. And we had two days to do it.

It was my first hackathon and I had no idea what to expect so before it even started, I made up my mind to just have fun no matter what happened. And it was more fun then I ever imagined. There’s something liberating about being thrown together with a group of complete strangers and forced to work hyper-collaboratively with them on a shared task that seems almost insurmountable. I highly recommend it.

POV Hackathon coding

Here’s my main takeaway on process: when faced with a problem, jump into the thick of it right away and whiteboard like it’s nobody’s business. You can iterate and experiment with more ideas in one fast-paced whiteboarding session then you can in a month of emails, deliberate strategy sessions, or thought-out rounds of design. The key is to do it with a group and do it as fast as you possibly can. Start with a straw dog. Then draw, talk, erase, repeat. Be quick to change directions. If someone has a thought, draw it as they’re talking. Expand on it. Riff on it. The trick is to just keep moving. Connect ideas, look for revealed patterns, and pretty soon a viable direction will emerge. It’s amazing and surprisingly fun.

I think hackathons have quite a bit to teach us about the way we work and some of the lessons learned there would be well applied to our everyday. Like making quick, aggressive decisions, focusing only on the minimum viable product, and not worrying at all about precious details, front-end polish, or future refinements. Worry about that stuff later. For now, just get it working. This principle was really driven home when we decided to completely change directions, scrap a days worth of work, and start on an entirely new idea late Saturday night (complete with an apologetic email to the members of our team who had already gone home for the night). Talk about bad timing. We got through it though, came out with a working prototype, and hope to see it progress into a real-life tool. So all in all, I’d say my first hackathon was a success. It was also an intense, inspiring, exhausting, and exhilarating experience. And one I won’t soon forget.

POV Hackathon group

View our prototype and the other equally amazing projects here!

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