OpenIDEO is an open innovation platform. Join our global community to solve big challenges for social good. Sign Up / Login or Learn more

Hackathons and user groups

Developers like to get together over weekends to build new products from scratch. These are called 'hackathons'. By embedding them in local surroundings and getting support from local governments, they will be easier to exist and grow.

Photo of pjv
17 39

Written by

Hackathons (this has no relationship to the illegal connotation of the word 'hacker') and user groups are where ideas are created. People, often still without goal or purpose, get together to experiment. 

Yet, user groups are scarce, and hackathons even more so. That is because in Europe they are often much harder to organize than in the US. Public buildings like libraries, schools, universities, ... are not widely accessible (opening hours, security), whereas the commercial market asks huge sums for simple short location rental services in cities like Brussels and Amsterdam. 

Even though requirements for a good organisation are not overly complicated (good WiFi, a beamer, tables and chairs, possibility of self-catering), the infrastructure often is just not good enough.

By leveraging existing public domain and the policy for regular local community life (carnaval, youth orgs) and local government support, a lot more should be possible. However, there is a bridge to cross here, as locals often do not understand the intent, do not recognize the value for the community, or fail to keep things lightweight. Some top-down awareness injection could certainly help there.

How will your concept support web entrepreneurship?

By making it easy to self-organize, the right groups of people will come together. Only at hackathons do you finally have the chance, as a developer or designer, to think out of the box (away from your normal routine involvements) and to test-drive your skill to pursue an entreprise. As an example, have a look at MusicHackDay, which consistently generates great and innovative web products. The cost to the community is negligible as voluntary work is involved.

What kinds of resources will be needed to get this concept off the ground and scale it?

To organize a hackathon or user group you need: 1. Location. This can be public buildings and infrastructure, which are often closed in the evening or on weekends anyway. Often, the host sets the condition to be present him/herself or even to have professional security present. This is an extra cost in terms of public workers. However, with a relation of trust, these precautions are rather unnecessary. 2. Healthy food. These can already be procured using sponsoring by private industries. 3. Volunteers. This will of course self-organize. (4. Advertising)

How could we get started?

There are already some user groups that would like to expand, as well as incubation groups that hesitate to organize these events. They could be sought out and addressed. Local governments should be contacted and asked to provide infrastructure to hold these events. A list could be made of most suitable public buildings for these types of events. Volunteers can co-ordinate these efforts, however the role of the EU and European governments is required to provide weight to the endeavor. Example: I co-organize the Brussels GTUG (Google Technology User Group) in Belgium. We recently organized a Global Android Dev Camp hackathon, where we had to cover all of our resources with sponsoring, which is hardly maintainable. For the 2013 edition we have been brainstorming about alternative locations. I am aware that the public library in Genk ( could be a perfect location. The building is new, spatious, and breathes innovation. The right climate to be creative. Moreover, it has dedicated computer classes that likely have good cabled internet. The city of Genk has free public WiFi, also in the library. The train station is right across the road. Parking is readily available. Yet, the building has rather limited opening hours, especially in the weekend. It almost seems a waste of public funding. By creating awareness, many more events could be held here. Limitations would be arranging the presence of library staff during the event (all weekend, night included), and closing the gap to value for the library and community. A hackathon of course has very little to do with books or literature, for which events do take place there, yet when you see the library as ideal public domain, such web-related events surely have a long-term relevance to even such a small community.

Virtual Team:

Tom Eldridge Paul van Zoggel Vanessa Wickenkamp Bram Geenen Louise Wilson Tamar Lasky


Join the conversation:

Photo of pjv

Who can shed light on what the EU institutions can do to give credibility to (add weight to) the idea of organizing these events in public buildings?

Who can plug us into local community (town/city) governments?

Photo of Paul van Zoggel

Netherlands has a national association of mayors. They participate sometimes in projects to benchmark feasibility of a project/service.

But do we need top down only?

I sure think we should first/also just get from let's say 10 EU places, 10 people which know 10 great public places.

Why? It is easier for me to talk to a mayor/politician/public building manager with the story : You want to be the FIRST public building in this hackathon places challenge?" We connect your building with 9 other in Europe!

(In other words; you miss the boat if you don't host our hackathon programme)

What do you think?

Photo of Amy Bonsall

Love the idea of tempting locations to be the first movers, Paul! Pjv, it sounds like you've already thought of who could be the first mover in Belgium.

I'd encourage you to reach out to the manager of the Genk library or someone in local office and pitch your idea. If you don't have contacts there try reaching out cold and pointing them to this site and to Android Dev camp event.

It sounds like you have great experience running hack-a-thons so it would be great to see you help Genk take up the challenge!

In terms of sponsorship, what are creative ways to keep the costs down? Could the community chip in with a pot-luck lunch? Or could a salad or bottle of soda be the cost of entry? Alternatively, maybe a local business would sponsor drinks if one of the hack teams made an app for his restaurant?

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Great idea Piv! For the food, I like the idea of the potluck. I remember going to art and technology in NY and everyone has to bring either food or drinks. I like also the first mover approach. It might be also Piv that you could understand what the director of Gent's library would be interested in. Maybe hackathons are not about literature, but I have the feeling that many libraries are more than about books and literature these days. Or maybe you could try to organize your event in parallel with a read-a-thon organized with the library and the local public schools.

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Hi again, you might want to check this inspiration about the Moscow library
They have developed interesting facilities and programs tailored to the youth and beyond offering only access to books.
You could also check what the Oslo library is doing:

Photo of Alexander Kenmure

I could maybe plug you into my local authority here in Camden, London. Picking up on your issue about credibility - weirdly I don't think our endorsement necessarily lends credibility, but what can do is spread the word through a range of networks that aren't necessarily available to most people (local magazines, schools, council tax notices!). Also we tend to have a lot of physical space as well that we can tap into.

I think the key to engaging with organisations like mine is aligning closely with the challenges we are facing on a local level. Get hold of strategic plans and pitch to us that for a small investment of local government time you can tap into a wealth of talent and ideas within our resident population.

Happy to explore.

Photo of pjv

Hi, thanks all for your comments. I *am* reading them, and underwater I'm trying to also gauge some reactions from locals and my network. I expect some kind of materialization before November 2012, but I still can use help with the motivations for the public sector to chip in. The more official the better!

It makes sense contacting me on Google+ profile:

@Alexander: when you say "our endorsement" you mean ...? I'm still figuring out the roles on this platform.

Photo of Paul van Zoggel

1. One minute video. Motivating public sector:
Most museums and libraries in EU are struggling with getting and keeping young people in. Any 1 minute video helping to solve this with at the experiment phase only HR involvement from them should be enough to get some going.

2. Two steps finance. Long term policy challenge :
Museums and libraries are costly culture, but gov. are not going to close them down. If the concept gives a generation X-Y-AO meaning/value to 'culture' and making people to come more. They can fit it in their next year budget planning. The first year (for 2013) would be like 3-5k, a worthy investment into hope. IF succesfull activities take place in 2013, policy makers can start reserving more from 2014 budgets.

Photo of Alexander Kenmure

@pjv: I guess when I say endorsement, what I am referring to is that when something has a government brand (local or national), it tends to mean a lot to people who have direct contact (usually contracts) with government but very little to the majority of people. Let's take Paul van Zoggel's post about costly library/museum services that to be honest are caught between having an important role to play but also feeling a little archaic. There is a big difference in perception between a hackathon on behalf of a local authority trying to make savings, and a hackathon where the local authority is an important but equal collaborator in tackling tough subjects and fostering insight and innovation. So what's the sell? Perhaps the opportunity to create safe, independent spaces where individuals and institutions can collaborate on equal terms to get at those ideas and resources that often feel locked away from public sector institutions.

That feels a little muddled - sorry. Will have a think and try and explain my thinking better.

Photo of Meena Kadri

Interesting musings to provoke thinking around the central proposition, Alexander. Clarity around stakeholder roles and motivations will indeed be significant to effectively pitch an idea like this.

View all comments