Advice from Hackathon Winners: How to Plan Your Time and Choose the Right APIs

Mark Boyd
Aug. 14 2013, 12:00PM EDT

Hackathon events continue to be a key strategy used to promote API products and services. For developers, they provide an opportunity to work on solutions to real world problems, create new networks of like-minded technologists, connect with potential clients, and provide a chance to hone core developer skills from programming to pitching.

Hackathon event planners are encouraged to read ChallengePosts’ top 5 keys to a successful app challenge. For competitors, we have already covered one key piece of advice: book your place in a hackathon early. This year has seen an explosion in growth of hackathon events, but surprisingly, this is yet to outstrip demand for new competition opportunities.

But once you have booked in to a competition, how can you best prepare to compete? Many hackathons operate over 24 hours or a weekend. How can you maximize the productive time you spend when the clock of a hackathon starts counting down?

“If you are in a hackathon, time is of essence,” says Stacey Mulcahy. As a technical evangelist with Microsoft, Mulcahy mentors developers on an almost daily basis on how to get up and running fast. “See if there are any libraries that can be leveraged in a language you are comfortable in, or if you want the challenge, a language you don't. Sometimes API providers aggregate these on their developer site, but searching github usually does the trick too.”

Dan Schultz, one of the creators of the competition-winning CivOmega tool also recommends being ready to make every hour of the hackathon count: “I think it comes down to lists, really. Have a list of interesting data sources, tools, and ideas before going into a hackathon. You can use these to brainstorm new ideas with a team, or just pick a single mission and run with it.”

Mulcahy also recommends reviewing the selection of available APIs before the competition starts so you are familiar with the potential datasets of each: “Find an obscure or interesting API that has lots of data - it will give you more options that an API that has limited endpoints and data,” she suggests.

James Rutherford, of io datalabs, is the winner of two hackathons focused on making use of open data and APIs to create location-based tools and services. This has included grand prize in the UK’s Manchester City Council Hackathon and Best Use of a City SDK prize in Greater Manchester’s Transport Department Innovation Challenge. He offers three pieces of advice when preparing to enter a hackathon competition:

"Mitigate against an unstable API: One of our hack projects was dependent on an API to work. That stopped responding for an hour in the closing phase of the event, which jeopardized our presentation. If you see this is a risk, you have the time, and it suits the scope, then you could mock up some quick and dirty fake local stubs to mimic the API. It's worth your while capturing some API responses during the event for appropriate endpoints so you can swiftly cludge this if pushed.

Consider how interoperable is the API: Take time out early on to take a close look at the responses from the APIs, to ensure they're all usable. For example, there are a raft of ways to specify geolocations - you should ensure that the data formats match the other intended APIs and presentation layers (e.g. map visualisations), or at the least- that you can afford the time to convert between them. Another subtlety here is to be aware of the data resolution - if you're intending to mash one dataset to another then you'll have difficulty if one is built to metre resolution and the other is kilometre. Ditto for IDs for connecting between datasets - is there a direct relationship, or do you have to do some hard work there?

Finally, be aware of any access limitations: Some APIs limit the request rate per hour, or temporarily block you if they get many requests in quick succession. Some have daily limitations, which could hamper the completion of your project at a late stage- local mockups would be useful here too. A few APIs lock access to specific client IPs, so you may need to add some auth credentials switching method for your code. Some have free tiers with commercial plans for volume access- if your event is 'Startup Weekend'-style, then you'll need to factor this into your commercial pitch.”

With upcoming hackathon events including the OnDeck Cup for sporting data, Samsung Developer Conference and the HACKTIVE Hackathon there are ample opportunities for developers to compete for big dollars and industry prestige. Make the best use of competition time by following the advice of industry insiders and competition winners like Stacey, Dan and James.

Mark Boyd is a ProgrammableWeb writer covering breaking news, API business strategies and models, open data, and smart cities. I can be contacted via email, on Twitter, or on Google+.

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