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Finding and choosing a hackathon to attend

Lots of developers seem to be interested in Hackathons but are not sure where to find out about them or what’s involved. This is part one of a summary of what I know about hackathons, based on a couple of years of going to them (mostly in and around London, my participation was sporadic until last year); the next article will offer some suggestions for what to do at a hackathon.

Hackathons-and-Jams UK is a great source of information about London based events; its a group on meetup.com which is the site to find out about out-of-work computer related get togethers; some of the other meetup groups that host events include: Data Science London, DataKind UK and Microservices Hackathon.

Eventbrite is often used by event organizers for attendee sign-up and searching this site using the obvious keywords is worthwhile.

The UK Hackspace Foundation lists more local groups meeting on a regular basis, an some hold hackathons.

Now you have a list of forthcoming events, which ones are worth attending (assuming a place is free; this year’s Battlehack ‘sold-out’ in six seconds)? I choose events based on how interesting they look and given a choice prefer those where I will be more relaxed (e.g., likely to have a comfortable place to sit, reasonable food and no noise) and much prefer 24 hr hacks (which usually start Saturday and finish Sunday); evening events are over almost before they have started. Events can be roughly classified as follows:

  • Data driven: sponsors provide lots of data relating to a topic, or access to an API, and people have to use this to create something,
  • Create anything: completely open-ended, as long as you make use of one of the sponsor’s API in some form,
  • Create anything in hardware: a hardware hack essentially boils down to hanging peripherals off a single board computer and making something happen.

I cannot give you any useful advice about what interests you (apart from suggesting that you ignore details of what the actual prizes are, just have fun and aim to produce something that wows the crowd), but I can provide a few tips on evaluating venues.

My top two venues are The Hub Westminster (very comfy seats, a great atmosphere, plenty of local shops and food often good {but Pret does get tedious}) and Level 39 at Canary Wharf (fantastic food and great views).

The venue I try to avoid is the Google Campus, a 1960s bunker packed with solid wooden furniture to deform your body and numb your behind; a very low cost venue that Google are happy to let startups to use for almost nothing in some cases.

In general events held in company/university canteens will be uncomfortable places to hack (these places are designed to get people to leave after they have eaten) and often have WiFi that cannot support too many users at the same time.

Hackathons are generally free; non-free ones are treated with suspicion (but some will return your registration fee when you turn up, a way of ensuring people will only book if they really plan to attend; it not unusual for 50% of those registered not to show up on the day). The deal is that you use the sponsors’ API (and so become familiar with their product) and they feed and water you.

Generally you get to keep copyright and any IP, although posting the code to sites such as Github is encouraged. Some financial services hacks have terms & conditions that require you to sign over your soul. Its your soul, your call.

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