The world is rapidly changing as we speak which is why many things we are used to which usually take place in-person are moving to online platforms. Hackathons are in that similar boat of changing from being an in-person event where massive amounts of people come together to have a great time to more online type events where the whole experience goes virtual.
Today, I am going to talk about that virtual experience which I had in hosting an online hackathon for the first time with my awesome friends at HackTheLib which wrapped up July 10th.
What is a Hackathon?
A Hackathon is usually an in-person event where people who are interested in Computer Science, whether it be the software or hardware aspect, or those who are just interested in technology come to build a project in a collaborative environment. During these events, you can usually attend ‘Workshops’ which are short timed sessions where you can learn how to use a certain software or learn about a neat thing in the world of coding.
Now due to current circumstances, many hackathon organizers have made the switch to hosting the event online and try to capture that experience which the same in-person would’ve had. My friends and I at HackTheLib did our best to do the same, let’s walk through how we accomplished to pull off our FIRST online hackathon and managed to get around 200 participants with less than a week of advertising!
The Brainstorming Process
In the summer of 2019, the HackTheLib team hosted an in-person event which was pretty successful in terms of turn out and was held at the local township library. However, this year would present many new hurdles in order to nicely coordinate the whole event online.
We started talking about our different ideas on how to maximize the online experience and still keep that feeling of togetherness through an online hackathon back in May.
We shared ideas regarding three main topics:
- What could be made: Many previous hackathons, due to current circumstances, had chosen to go with the COVID-19 theme, however, we decided on being all-inclusive and let all projects be submitted with no extra weight being given to COVID-19 themed projects.
- How to prevent code-plagiarism: We wanted to ensure that the integrity of our hackathon was still fully intact and that no person would gain an unfair advantage.
- The Submission Process: This is something I’ll deep dive into a bit later, but we had to discuss what is the best way for programmers to turn in their projects whether it be through Google Drive, Github, or Devpost.
- Workshops: We were trying our best to emulate the in-person experience to an online environment so we realized that we would have to figure out a way to either have pre-recorded workshops or do some live.
- Prizes: This was the easy part of hosting online as many gift cards for the winning teams/individuals can be sent out via email/text.
Having some initial ideas and roles delegated, we began to get to work.
We soon realized that our old website would not suffice for this online format as the old HackTheLib website was specifically catered out for that in-person experience. Hence, we started to look for either bootstrap templates which we could change to meet our needs or we would either start from scratch. Luckily, we were able to get a great template from the hosts of the Grabathon, and we would use this website as our foundation to customize.
Although I am not going to go into every new section of our website, we were able to add many sections such as a live schedule area which would be updated with the latest workshops/webinars going live. Furthermore, we would have a dedicated section for what our hackathon was truly about, the prizes involved, our respective judges with their descriptions, and a team area. Many of these sections were previously not available in our old website, so this website was a much better representative of our overall goal through HackTheLib.
The Submission Process
A large part of hackathons is to submit something you made in the duration of the hackathon. Usually, during in-person events, participants present their projects “live” in the sense that they are explaining their project functionality and neat code in front of judges. However, now we had to find a way to maintain that presentation in a timely manner for the judges. What we decided to do was that participants would need to turn in a minimum of these three things:
- Their Github Repository with all their code
- A link to a YouTube Video in the ReadMe where participants explain the functionality of their project in 2–5 minutes
- A Greeting to our Judges :)
We had to figure out the best way to allow for smooth submissions and initially narrowed it down to three ways:
- #1: Google Drive: Participants submit the project code and a .mp4 file of the functionality of their video
- #2: Github: Participants push their code through github and add a link to their video
- #3: Devpost: The easiest way to facilitate the turn in of code, and was linked to the idea of using Github.
We would go with a combination of the second & third idea, where participants would submit their projects through devpost and would link a Github repository with their project code and a youtube video link in their ReadMe to show the functionality of their projects.
It is the truth that sponsors really help promote an overall hackathon and often they provide neat workshop material in order to boost the experience at your hackathon. Luckily, we were able to get in contact with some great sponsors who helped our online event climb to the next level.
Through the help of our sponsors, we were able to:
- Receive free merchandise to one’s home
- Hear some great tips on the Software Engineering industry from leaders in the actual industry
- Host Machine Learning workshops
If you would like to check out more of the great things we were able to add to our hackathon because of our sponsors, I highly recommend you check out our website.
The Actual Event
Our Online Hackathon lasted from July 7th to July 10th, 2020. Overall, the event went pretty smoothly, and a main reason for that is due to the way we utilized efficient communication between our team and the participants.
You might ask: how did we quickly communicate? Well, we created our own Discord server in order to have separate channels where participants could socialize and ask questions to us. This way we were able to maintain that social aspect of an in-person hackathon by allowing participants to talk with another whilst they make their projects, and also made sure they could get in contact with us efficiently.
Furthermore, we would utilize discord to make announcements for when workshops would go live along with other guest speaker events.
All in all, our communication with the participants went really smoothly and we were able to maintain that sense of socializing and meeting new people at a Hackathon.
Overall, I had an amazing and fun experience of being able to help host an online hackathon and in creating the new website for our Hackathon. In the future, we plan on making our Hackathon a more date-fixated event, meaning we are looking at having fixed dates throughout the year for participants to come back and have a great time at our hackathon. For sure through our first run at an online event, we took away some good feedback and are ready to come back even bigger and better!
Thank you to all those who participated! HackTheLib will be back soon!
Note: If you were wondering about the metrics and some specifics regarding our Hackathon and the growth of our organization, I highly recommend you check out this article by Pavan, another HackTheLib organizer! :)
Thanks for reading my Medium Article! I hope that you learned something interesting about the whole process of switching an in-person event to a completely online format! Stay tuned for more great articles regarding my experiences and other programming related topics. Don’t forget to follow me on Medium to stay updated!