A hackathon (also known as a hack day, hackfest or codefest) is an event in which computer programmers and others in the field of software development, like graphic designers, interface designers and project managers, collaborate intensively on software-related projects. Occasionally, there is a hardware component as well. Hackathons typically last between a day and a week in length. Some hackathons are intended simply for educational or social purposes, although in many cases the goal is to create usable software, or to improve existing software. Hackathons tend to have a specific focus, which can include the programming language used, the operating system, an application, an API, the subject matter and the demographic group of the programmers. In other cases, there is no restriction on the type of software being created.
Yahoo! Internal Hack Day Event at Yahoo HQ (Sunnyvale, CA USA), June 6, 2006
Origin and history
The word "hackathon" is a portmanteau of the words "hack" and "marathon". The term seems to have been created independently by both the developers of OpenBSD and the marketing team of Sun; these usages both first happened in 1999.
OpenBSD's apparent first use of the term referred to a cryptographic development event held in Calgary on June 4, 1999, where 10 developers came together to avoid legal problems caused by export regulations of cryptographic software from the United States.
For Sun, the usage referred to an event at the JavaOne conference from June 15 to June 19, 1999; there John Gage challenged attendees to write a program in Java for the new Palm V using the infrared port to communicate with other Palm users and register it on the Internet. The event was dubbed "the Hackathon".
Starting in the mid to late 2000s, hackathons became significantly more widespread, and began to be increasingly viewed by companies and venture capitalists as a way to quickly develop new software technologies, and to locate new areas for innovation and funding.. Some major companies were born from these hackathons, such as GroupMe, which began as a project at a hackathon at the TechCrunch Disrupt NYC 2010 conference; in 2011 it was acquired by Skype for $85 million.
Hackathons typically start with one or more presentations about the event, as well as about the specific subject matter, if any. Then participants suggest ideas and form teams, based on individual interests and skills. Then the main work of the hackathon begins, which can last anywhere from several hours to several days. For hackathons that last 24 hours or longer, especially competitive ones, eating is often informal, with participants often subsisting on food like pizza and energy drinks. Sometimes sleeping is informal as well, with participants sleeping on-site with sleeping bags and the like.
At the end of hackathons, there is usually a series of demonstrations in which each group presents their results.There is sometimes a contest element as well, in which a panel of judges select the winning teams, and prizes are given. At many hackathons, the judges are made up organizers and sponsors. At BarCamp-style hackathons that are organized by the development community, such as iOSDevCamp, the judges are usually made up of peers and colleagues in the field. Such prizes are sometimes a substantial amount of money; a social gaming hackathon at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference offered $250,000 in funding to the winners.
At other hackathons, the focus is not on competition, but rather on improving existing software. This is often the case with hackathons devoted to a single piece of open source software, where the hackathon represents one of few occasions where its developers can meet face to face to work on code. Such meetings are sometimes also known as "sprints" or "code sprints".
Types of hackathons
For a platform
Some hackathons focus on a particular platform such as mobile apps, a desktop operating system, or web development.
Mobile app hackathons like Over the Air, held at Bletchley Park, England, can see a large amount of corporate sponsorship and interest. Hackathons have also been held to develop video-based applications and computer games.
Music Hack Day, a hackathon for music-related software and hardware applications, is a popular event, having been held over 20 times around the world since 2009.
The annual hackathon to work on the operating system OpenBSD, held since 1999, was a pioneering hackathon that may have originated the word "hackathon".
Hackathons have been held to develop applications that run on various mobile device operating systems, such as Android iOS and MeeGo.
For a specific programming language, API, or framework
Perl hackathons, which have been held since 2007, tend to focus on improving the language itself, including testing. Haskell and Scala have had similar hackathons.
There have also been hackathons devoted to creating applications that use a specific language or framework, like HTML5 and Ruby on Rails.
Some hackathons focus on applications that make use of the application programming interface, or API, from a single company or data source. The Open Hack Day, an event run publicly by Yahoo! since 2006 (originally known as simply "Hack Day"), has focused on usage of the Yahoo! API, in addition to APIs of websites owned by Yahoo!, like Flickr. Google has run similar events for their APIs, as has the travel guide company Lonely Planet
The website Foursquare notably held a large, global hackathon in 2011, in which over 500 developers at over 30 sites around the world competed to create applications using the Foursquare API.
PyPy, Drupal and MediaWiki are some applications that hold development hackathons.
For a cause or purpose
Developers at the 2011 Rewired State "National Hack the Government Day" There have been a number of hackathons devoted to improving government, and specifically to the cause of open government. One such event, in 2011, was hosted by the United States Congress.
Various hackathons have been held to improve city transit systems. There have also been a number of hackathons devoted to improving education, including Education Hack Day. Random Hacks of Kindness is another popular hackathon, devoted to disaster management and crisis response.
For a demographic group
Some hackathons are intended only for programmers within a certain demographic group, like teenagers, college students and women.
Internal company hackathons
Some companies, such as Facebook and Google, hold internal hackathons to promote new product innovation by the engineering staff. Facebook's Like button was conceived as part of a hackathon.
Some hackathons have no restrictions on content or attendees, and are simply a contest to generate interesting software applications quickly. SAPO Codebits, sponsored by the Portuguese internet service provider SAPO, is one example.
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