CHI 2018: Everybody’s Hacking: Participation and the Mainstreaming of Hackathons

We’ve had two papers accepted into CHI 2018 based on the Ardler Inventors project, the first of which is based on fieldwork at six hackathons. I’ll write about this one first because chronologically it was the first piece of work done on the project, which informed the design of our Inventor Days at later stages.

You can find a pre-print online here and the final paper will be open access from the end of April.


Hackathons have been around for a while, but they’ve become increasingly popular in recent years. They’ve transcended the software communities that originated them and entered the mainstream, being taken up by a wide range of organisations, including charities and museums.

Many of these share similar goals with other hackathons—that is, to bring developers together to rapidly develop new applications and prototypes. But another breed of hackathons has emerged that takes key properties of the format, particularly their intensive, co-located nature, and uses them to engage with very different audiences. Although they are still often focused on the design of future technologies, they de-emphasise the actual act of creating software, to the extent that some have been described as “hackathons with no hacking”.

Something about the format has captured people’s imaginations in a way that other types of participatory design activities seem not to, inspiring time-starved people to give up entire weekends to imagine future technologies. Our view was that HCI researchers could learn a lot from these “mainstreamed” hackathons, either in further re-positioning them towards research or in designing other participatory activities.

With this in mind, we attended and participated six hackathons, to understand how they worked, how they meaningfully engage non-technical participants, and what we can learn from them for the design of our own events.

Photo © Zoe Prosser for Snook.


Hackathons as public engagement. For most of the organisations and the participants, the actual creation of prototypes and ideas was not the primary purpose of the events. Instead they served as an exciting and creative way to engage with a new topic or issue, and with new communities. For many of the organisations, they served almost as a form of consultation exercise: attendees brought new perspectives and ideas to issues that the organisers had been working with for some time. The hackathon environment helped them to reach people in a more creative way that wasn’t possible with other types of workshop.

Participating without coding. Given the lack of focus on the prototypes themselves, it wasn’t difficult for the events to engage with a wider audience beyond technologists. Much of the “hacking” involved production of content, such as video, cardboard mock-ups, or even just discussions of concepts. Where teams did produce code, members from non-technical background often served roles including researching, creating content, or providing inspiration and insights into the specific topic that coders lacked.

Tensions in the format. Despite the enthusiasm with which they’ve been taken up, the hackathon format didn’t always sit comfortably with the new audiences it had been targeted at. From simple issues with communicating what its purpose was, to more fundamental challenges around inclusion, organisers had to put significant effort into creating an environment that was welcoming. Our own subsequent work in this area took a lot of this on board, thinking about how we could address some of these issues without losing the core of what made hackathons attractive.

Hackathons as participatory spaces. Above all, we came away from this research with the sense that the attraction of hackathons was in the creation of participatory spaces, where the right mix of people and skills could come together to engage with the subject on their own terms. Moreover, this was not just a means to an end, but an enjoyable activity in itself. We were particularly reminded of Vines et al’s call for participants to be able to take a more active role in configuring participatory activities—something that was certainly happening at the events we attended.

Ardler Inventor Day #1: Getting To Know You

When you’re doing research with communities, the first event is always the most nerve-wracking. You’ve made all the contacts, been to the community festival, dished out a small forest’s worth of flyers and posters, bought plenty of biscuits.

But will anyone actually turn up?

Repurposing Hackathons for Everyone

The Ardler Inventor Days are being run as part of the EPSRC Hacking for Situated Civic Engagement project. The idea is to investigate whether hackathons—intensive bursts of creative tinkering with technology—could be used to support communities in developing unique technologies to serve their local needs. Working with Dundee’s Ardler community over a series of three events, we’ll be trying to bring people from Ardler together with researchers and makers to share knowledge and imagine new ideas.

Hackathons are usually the domain of techies and programmers, but we want to find out if we can take the basic idea out into communities, tweak it a little bit, and use it as a way to unlock creativity and build relationships that will last much longer than our research project.

As it happened, the turnout for the first Ardler Inventor Day last weekend was about what we’d hoped. About eight people joined us in the Ardler Complex: young and old, father and son, mother and daughter, even three generations from one family! Along with Loraine and me from the university, and three or four friends from the maker community, it made for a group that was a little more intimate than your typical hackathon, but that we thought was the perfect scale for a meaningful community event.

I don’t think anyone knew quite what to expect (including us), but after an ice breaker to get people’s creative juices flowing—teams were challenged to build the tallest Marshmallow supporting structure they could using just spaghetti, tape and string (hint: triangles are your friend, but build the base nice and wide)—and some demos of creative technologies from our makers, we were ready to go.

Designing with Communities

The other big unknown about this first event was: will anything useful come out of it?

It’s hard to know how people would respond to the event we’d put together and how successful we’d be in getting people’s creative juices flowing. At most hackathons, everybody there knows roughly what to expect, and they’ve probably been to hackathons before. But outside of that community, most people aren’t used to being creative on demand.

After guided tours round the community, it was clear we needn’t have worried. From traffic problems and safe routes to school, to the things that were lost when the estate was rebuilt, through to Ardler’s famous Santa’s grotto and local legends about witches and crocodiles, the things that were emerging were a mix of the issues faced by communities up and down the country with things that had a unique Ardler flavour.

Add a lot of craft materials and a bucket full of Lego, and things began to move along on their own accord. There was a lot of richness in the things that were coming out of the workshop and we’re already excited about picking these ideas back up at the next Inventor Day… and trying hard to remember we’re not supposed to be coming up with things ourselves!

The second Ardler Inventor Day is less than two weeks away, on August 27th at the Ardler Complex. Next time, we’ll be developing some of the ideas further and beginning to play around with some technology. If you live in Ardler, if you’re involved in the Ardler community somehow, or if you’re a maker or creative from anywhere in Dundee, get in touch if you’d like to join us for the next event, and see what can create together!

Launching: Hacking for Situated Civic Engagement

Hacking Logo SmallIn November, we kicked off Hacking for Situated Civic Engagement, a project funded by EPSRC to explore how hackathons can be used to design civic technologies with communities. Over the course of the project, we’ll be running a series of hackathons with the Ardler community in Dundee to identify and attempt to address some local issues with civic technologies. As the project gets under way, I wanted to explain a bit about the motivations for doing it.

Leaving the Wild

My research has always been about long-term engagement with people to develop technologies that support their local community. In Wray, we worked with a rural community over four or five years to iteratively develop digital noticeboards, while Bespoke used citizen journalism to inspire the design of unique technologies in an area of Preston. The goal is to build cool stuff that responds to particular local needs, and which hopefully has some real and sustainable effect on the community.

But as these projects drew to a close, a recurring theme began to emerge: handing over the technology to the community at the end was pretty difficult. In Wray, we’d always said they could keep the displays at the end, but we hadn’t counted on hardware failures immediately afterwards. Bespoke had likewise planned to hand things over when we finished, but ultimately failed to do so. I wrote a paper about it—Leaving the Wild—suggesting some steps we could take to minimise the difficulties.

Top Down vs Grassroots

ViewpointMore recently, my research has drifted towards civic engagement and activism, aiming to get people more involved in how their communities are run. On Bespoke, we developed Viewpoint, a device that collected feedback from the community by posting questions in public spaces like shops and community centres.

However, while we talked about empowering the community, looking back with a critical eye it’s clear that both the device itself (designed by us) and the questions being asked (by the council and housing organisations), we all operating in a top-down kind of way. I look back and wonder if we could have done more to give citizens a voice, rather than making them passive respondents. PosterVote was partly a response to this, but ultimately it’s usage is still restricted by the form of the device that we designed.

Towards Sustainable Local Innovation

Together, these two problems lead towards an obvious solution: can communities be supporting in building their own stuff?

This is easier said than done, of course. Developing skills and creating a culture of applying these skills to local issues is a big task, and one we don’t intend to solve in its entirety. Rather, this project aims to examine just one piece of the puzzle. We’ll be looking at whether hackathons—intensive bursts of activity around the creation of new technologies—can be used to bring together community members and makers to discuss local issues and propose solutions, while creating enthusiasm around technology and the possibilities it presents. We’ll also be exploring how we can document and share these processes and the things we develop, so that other communities—ones who don’t have a research project working with them—can replicate and take inspiration from the same ideas.

The bulk of the project will take place later in the year, but in the meantime we’ll be attending other people’s hackathons around Scotland and UK to figure out how hackathons are already been appropriated for other purposes. You can keep up with us on the project website, as well as on Twitter.