Latest Hackathon Competition Advice? Book Early

Mark Boyd
Jun. 18 2013, 12:00PM EDT

Global interest in hackathons is growing fast, with many events booking out shortly after being announced. Developers keen to test out new skills in real world environments, and entrepreneurs who want to connect with a readily assembled network of do-ers are driving global growth in hackathon events. And with more businesses looking to use hackathons as a way to evangelize their APIs, there’s no sign that this trend will slow down any time soon.

In a month that started with over 11,000 participants in the National Day of Civic Hacking, upcoming and recent hackathons around the world – from San Francisco to Barcelona to London - have all seen record numbers of interest and were fully booked in advance.

HACKtivate ED- A Hackathon for Education from Activate ED on Vimeo. Chian Gong is one of four founders of HACKtivate ED, held in San Francisco from June 14 – 16. Shortly after the event’s announcement, HACKtivate ED booked out its full run of 80 places, but later extended the invitation to allow for another 20 participants. By the time the education-based hackathon was starting, a further 78 developers had been added to the waiting list.

Speaking to ProgrammableWeb, Ms Chian Gong, an Education Pioneers Analyst Fellow at Aspire Public Schools, said:

“In reading through applications for this event, we found a few themes that participants reiterated:

  • Educators registered with a desire to learn more about technology and how it can help them both in and out of the classroom.
  • Developers & designers have registered for the opportunity to build connections with the education community. In particular, I believe start-ups are hungry for more educator input and forming in-depth relationships with key stakeholders such as schools.
  • Many people across all roles joined the event as a chance to engage in the ed tech community and to meet other passionate, like-minded folks with hopes of finding their niche or a potential partner.

There are a number of factors that contribute to this growing popularity. It feels like this generation of folks have really latched onto the idea of social impact and social entrepreneurship: an idea that innovation can help serve our communities. Similarly, the spirit of entrepreneurship is infectious in the Bay Area. People are passionate about building things and scrappy development. These hackathons offer an opportunity to challenge yourself, build something tangible, and meet similar like-minded folks
who might turn out to be your next co-founders! There's also of course some street cred and incentive to participate in a hackathon for the visibility of pitching to impressive judges/funders and validating an idea in a broad, public audience."

At around the same time in Barcelona (on June 13 – 14), the BCN Music Hack Day hosted its 2013 competition. This annual event is held in conjunction with Sonar music festival and is part of a competition series that takes place in 9 cities around the world. 2013 has seen its largest number of competitors, with the event’s 50 places snapped up ahead of time. 26 APIs were used in the competition, and 16 sponsors provided prizes. Winners included Festivalizr, which creates a music festival playlist using the Deezer API, and Hindify, which transforms any audio track into Hindustani music using the Echonest API.

BCN music hackathon poster

Grant Kemp is one of the organizers of the meetup UK Hackathons and Jams, in London, where a Hacked event scheduled for 20-21 July was fully booked out in two weeks. “Two years ago, London had one event every 5 weeks or so,” Mr Kemp said. “Now there are several every weekend, and our meetup group has grown from 0 to 600 members in less than two years.”

Kemp credits some pop culture awareness for building knowledge of hackathons, but also sees the real-time learning focus, instant hacker community, and incubator environment as being key drivers.

“People see the Facebook movie and are interested in apps and what can be done, and are intrigued by the idea that new tools can be built overnight,” Mr Kemp said.

"For some people who are very tech-y, the learning aspect and testing it out is the key focus. For example, I wanted to learn Android, so I attended a few hackathons and at the same time opened my eyes to other cool APIs like Twilio.

There’s a real cross-pollination of ideas at hackathons and you get to share your ideas with other people and get feedback on it. There’s also a larger number of people who come along with their ideas and who get to build something by meeting developers: It’s a really good way to build networks and relationships. Happily, there have been some ideas that have been turned into business models off the back of this sort of work.”

Kemp also pointed to the growing infrastructure supporting API developers interested in hackathon competitiors: social networks and event sites like Lanyrd, Meetup, Hackerleague and ChallengePost.

To keep up with growing demand, organizers are beginning to create competitions aimed at problem-solving for more specific needs (such as a forthcoming Californian hackathon aimed at helping the sustainable meat industry to scale up), or being hosted by an API service as part of a global competition series (as has been the case for the current Evernote Developer Cup).

For API developers looking to test out ideas and build new business networks, getting a place at the competition table is the first battle to win.

For more hackathon competition advice, check out our Developer Evangelist Playbook series with ChallengePost to provide key insights for developers considering entering API competitions and hackathons.

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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