Designing Hackathons that Work

Hackathons democratize social change technology by uniting coders with people who want to enact change in their communities through app design. At the Kapor Center, we often say that we have enough apps to tell you the weather; we need innovative apps that address safety, educational access, equity, language barriers, community organizing, food justice, and other issues faced by underrepresented communities.

Despite their prevalence and frequency, there is little research into the efficacy of hackathons beyond anecdotal evidence that supports or disproves the claim that these events reap positive social change results. This represents a significant gap in research as the tactic is gaining popularity and the problems in our communities need effective, sustainable technological interventions. There is, however, a lot of writing on “best practices” when staging hackathons. I have pulled from these pieces the pros and (tips for avoiding the) cons of social change hackathons:


  • They can galvanize ideas, businesses, and social change initiatives

  • People can meet others with similar interests/goals, mentors, and make lasting connections

  • They can infuse energy into a cause and attract people to social change

  • They are enjoyable for the participants and it can be inspirational to take on big issues

  • They can make small dents in problems

  • They can simplify the act of starting an initiative into clear, actionable steps

  • They can expose people to coding and the process of app development

Tips for avoiding hackathon missteps:

  • Design a process that extends beyond the hackathon weekend in order to better create well-designed and well-executed software

  • Allot extensive time for education (and assign pre-reading, if possible) on the social justice issues that the technology will address if the people in the room are not very familiar with the problems at hand. Better yet, ensure that the participants are all from the communities served by the technology, as this always fosters the best, most relevant initiatives.

  • Pre-establish commitment from participants that extends far beyond the actual hackathon to ensure the initiative’s upkeep

  • Consider whether a hackathon is the best avenue to accomplish your goals. Sometimes, paying someone to create and maintain an app is the best route for ensuring sustainability of a project

Much of this research is pulled from the following pieces, I encourage individuals considering hackathons to read these in their entirety:

Why Hackathons Suck (and Don’t have to)

by Jeff Winshie Jan 19, 2014, ThoughtWorks

Hackathon Events: Do They Really Help Anyone?

by Claire Topalian April 19, 2013, Forbes

You Can’t Just Hack Your Way To Social Change

by Jake Porway, March 2013, Harvard Business Review

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