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Category: Hack-a-thon

Make Hackathons Fair Again

By FRED TROTTER

On Oct 19, I will begin to MC the health equity hackathon in Austin TX, which will focus on addressing healthcare disparity issues. Specifically, we will be using healthcare data to try and make an impact on those problems. Our planning team has spent months thinking about how to run a hackathon fairly, especially after the release of a report that harshly criticized how hackathons are typically run.

A Wired article written earlier this year trumpets a study called “Hackathons As Co-optation Ritual: Socializing Workers and Institutionalizing Innovation in the ‘New’ Economy,” which criticizes the corporate takeover of hackathons. Hackathons are inherently unfair to participants according to these two sociologists.

They argue that hackathons have become a way for corporations to trick legions of technologists into working for free. To a sociologist, that looks like exploitation, and it is hard to see how they are wrong.

After reading the article, I was struck by how many things about typical hackathons are backward:

  • Hackathons romanticize workaholism and celebrate insomnia – With hackathons typically running 24-72 hours straight, sleep is for the weak. Those who don’t sleep are seen as heroes.
  • Junk food is the only option – Most hackathons provide unhealthy snacks, high in fructose and low in protein. Participants are expected to fuel their unpaid work sprints with sugar and caffeine. These are frequently the only eating options available.
  • Healthy work patterns ensure that there are breaks. Opportunities to chat, or walk and take a break from work. And the idea of encouraging people to get up and move, let alone stretch, is unheard of at these hackathons. Hundreds of geeks, unable to shower, or leave the room, can create a pretty bad smell.
  • Judging is at best arbitrary, and in some cases completely rigged, with winners sometimes chosen in advance.

On occasion, I have seen harder stimulants used. Although I have never seen anyone on cocaine win, it does make for super-engaging project presentations. The presentations were not good, mind you, just engaging… In the “Holy Moses, this guy is about to present when he is clearly high AF” sense.

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