What is a hackathon?

As an organizer of the upcoming Network of Biothings Hackathon at UC San Diego, I’ve been asked by a number of people what a hackathon is exactly.  I’m repurposing one of those responses here (original posted on the San Diego iOS developers meetup group).

The main idea is that a variety of different people come together to meet each other and make something together – almost always something open source. In the case of our hackathon, the purpose is specifically to engender new collaborations. For the academics these could translate into new research programs and new collaborative grant proposals. For industry folks, these could turn into new products.  Ideally, a hackathon can bring together the elements of a great new team. For example, I’m a back-end database guy with an understanding of bioinformatics. I’d love to find a front-end web or app developer to help make my data and algorithms useful to the rest of the world.

Here are a few questions I’ve fielded:

  • why do developers pay to build apps for somebody else? 

The money goes to pay for food, drinks, facilities fees, and to a small extent the prize. Developers don’t pay to develop for someone else, they pay to meet other people and to eat.. No one is under any obligation to give their code to anyone else. You would be welcome to come by and work on your own project. In fact, we are actively trying to get more project ideas posted for our hackathon. (Note that the fee we are asking for is only $40 and many hackathons with larger sponsors are free).

  • why do developers put their time to do work for free?

The main point here is team formation. If you have a great app, this is also a way to advertise it – especially if it wins a prize.

  • do the teams who paid to participate build apps and one is chosen as winner? 

Yes, this is the basic idea.

  • are the rest thrown away? 

Nothing is thrown away. The participants maintain ownership of all code that is written. (Though open source is very strongly encouraged…)

  • Am I too young/old to participate?
Nope!  All are welcome.

In conclusion, hackathons are fun, social events for people that like to build new things, meet new people, and perhaps the change the world.  Sign up for ours and find out for yourself!


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  1. 1st BD2K 3rd Network of BioThings Hackathon | The Su Lab - […] For more info see: https://github.com/Network-of-BioThings/nob-hq/wiki/1st-BD2K-3rd-Network-of-BioThings-Hackathon What is a hackathon?: http://sulab.org/2014/11/what-is-a-hackathon/ […]

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