In the months following the first Houston Hackathon, several organizations approached us. They read about the city hackathon in the newspaper or they heard about it online, and they wanted one of their own. From the first email, there were always little clues that something didn’t quite add up. But we took every meeting. One by one, they all unfolded the same way:
We love the idea of a hackathon, they said. That’s why we want to meet with you. You see, we really need a new website. Do you think we could have a hackathon and get people to build us a new site for free?
No, I said. That’s not how it works.
We would explain how hackathons are a chance to explore new ideas. How you can bring smart people into a room, get them focused on a big issue, get out of the way, and see what comes back.
But it was clear that none of these people had ever been to a hackathon before. They knew that they wanted a hackathon, but they didn’t seem to know what it was or how it worked.
It was a little shocking. But then we started to see each meeting as a missed opportunity. Did these organizations seriously think that a hackathon was just free labor? Or was a new website the first (and last) technology project that came to mind? Maybe we needed to do a little learning ourselves.
With that in mind, we took a different approach. We kept taking the meetings, but this time we asked them open ended questions: what motivates someone to come to your hackathon? What are all the projects they could work on? What would you work on, if you had the right teammates?
It reframed the entire conversation. Participants were no longer seen as free labor. They were an extension of the braintrust. A hundred fresh eyes on a series of problems that might not have a tech solution yet. Our meetings became much more productive, as people started to think outside the website. But understanding the hackathon concept is just the beginning. It has to connect to your organization, and, more importantly, to your mission.
What Does Your Organization Stand For?
To do this, you have to understand why someone would attend your hackathon. The people who take part in “social good” hackathons aren’t motivated by a brand. They are motivated by a cause. And unless your organization makes it clear what you stand for, a hackathon is just PR fodder. But if you look at your broadest message, your reason for being, your mission statement, you will discover the things that motivate your participants.
That’s how we knew that the Houston Center for Literacy would be different. I knew a few of their board members from other collaborative events (Amitav Misra was a co-organizer of the Cleanweb Hackathon in 2012). HCL wanted to host a hackathon because they thought it was a new and interesting way to build a tech and marketing community around the issue of literacy.
Because literacy is a big problem in Houston. Approximately 1 in 5 Harris County residents lacks basic literacy skills. This limits economic opportunities, and affects the workforce in a variety of ways. It cascades into the education system, when children aren’t prepared to read in school because they don’t read at home. It has effects on our healthcare system. It prevents a cultural understanding of how to exist in the United States, and how to decipher our social norms.
Thirty years ago, the Mayor’s office created the Houston Center for Literacy to advocate for the 60+ literacy providers across the county. They coordinate resources, provide educational opportunities, and help shape policy for the community as a whole.
There are a lot of people who want to help the Houston Center for Literacy. Some of them love the organization and the work it does in the community. But others have never heard of HCL. They want to help address the literacy problem, and HCL could be a vehicle for them. So our goal for the hackathon was to broaden the community to include people with specific technology and marketing skills.
We could have spit out the HCL facts, talked about the how great the organization is, listed off some board members, and patted ourselves on the back. But that doesn’t do much to educate people about the cause.
The best way to grow this community was to draw from the mission statement.
HCL’s mission statement is: “to lead and mobilize a coalition of literacy providers and resources to improve the literacy landscape of Houston.” A hackathon seemed like a great way to bring people together, so I met with Amitav and Clay Brett over beers and basketball. We agreed that the event should be short and sweet, taking place in a single afternoon with a happy hour to follow. That left us with only a few hours of work time, so we had to figure out sample projects that were achievable and useful. Using HCL’s reach into the literacy community, we contacted various community organizations, including literacy providers and the Houston Public Library.
It turns out, improving the literacy landscape of Houston is a mission people could support.
Finding the Right Projects for the Event
There were several projects that could help HCL, but they didn’t improve the literacy landscape of Houston. We scrapped them.
Instead, we drew inspiration from A Blueprint for Community Action from the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation. It was the missing link, helping us connect the literacy problem with outcomes in education, poverty, healthcare, and so much more.
It also gave us a great outline for sample projects that have an immediate impact, and we curated a list right away. In the end, a group of forty participants produced eight projects, including:
- A map of all the literacy providers in Harris County
- Updated marketing materials based on recent research
- An early literacy development campaign
- A young professionals group dedicated to literacy
- A Houston Independent School District site built by HISD librarians
- An app outline designed to help adults learn to read
- A website to match book donors with organizations in need
- A campaign that shows higher literacy rates when the library is open on Sunday
Some of them were on our list, and some weren’t. All of them were well received.
Incorporating the Mission Statement into a Community Strategy
I think hackathons are an excellent way to illustrate what’s possible, but it’s best to set expectations. An organization should consider the event experimental, and not rely on a specific outcome. After all, hackathons usually don’t produce a finished project. But even an unfinshed project can point to something achievable, and the creative energy is inspiring. HCL now has a portfolio of possibilities, and an educated, skilled community to help make it real. In fact, they’re already working on what comes next.
This hackathon stretched our brains. We’d done a writing and marketing focused hackathon in the past with the City of Houston Writeathon, and it turned out well. But the writeathon had an easy message: improve government communication. The sprawling literacy problem is difficult to sum up in a tagline.
So we planned this hack around five points:
- Keep the focus broad. We didn’t want to make it the HCL show. We wanted to go beyond the organization to tackle the problem of literacy. That means empowering organizations in the literacy community, which also fits the HCL mission. We got a chance to collaborate with the Houston Public Library, the Houston Independent School District, and literacy providers from across the city.
- Educate the participants. This was the first hackathon for most of the attendees. Leading up to the event, we spent a lot of time answering emails and tweets. We encouraged people to read about literacy in Harris County, and to get familiar with the sample projects. On the event day, we wanted people to relax, so we stressed that there are no wrong answers and that it is impossible to fail this exercise.
- Plan the event properly. There were only four working hours at LiteracyHack. That’s not enough time to produce a substantial technology project, so we made sure to include sample projects that fit the timeframe of the event. We also provided recommended tools and links to get participants up to speed quickly.
- Curate fun and interesting sample projects. My favorite project from this hackathon was LitLab, the Houston Center for Literacy’s strategy for a young professionals group. I’ve never thought about what makes a good YP group, but I want to join what Owl Eyes Creative designed.
- Capture the stories. Events can be rewarding, but they disappear quickly. It’s important to capture the stories as they unfold and document it online. We use a combination of Twitter and blogging, and encourage the participants to do the same. Then, when we provide a roundup, we have several perspectives to rely on.
When an organization plans a hackathon, it’s easy to fall into an ROI trap of what will we get out of this event? HCL gave the organizing team the freedom to pursue a successful path, and we’re thankful to them. Specifically, thank you to Sheri Forman Elder, Clay Brett, Amitav Misra, Annie Criner Eifler, Emily Manning Glassel, Jones Mays, Allen Westrick, Jennifer Schwartz, and all the participants and volunteers.