Hackathon Fever: Curing the Cancer of Convenience

-- By MadelineCameronWardleworth - 03 Feb 2018

Curious Bedfellows

What do South by Southwest, the UK’s Society for Computers and Law, and workplace equality thought leader Caren Ulrich Stacey have in common? At a minimum, a shared enthusiasm for hackathons. ‘Hackathon’ is a portmanteau of ‘hack’ and ‘marathon,’ defined by Major League Hacking as an ‘invention marathon’. In recent years the concept and practice has been exported and taken up as a collaborative, multidisciplinary learning site for brainstorming tech-based interventions to a raft of issues. The events are often hosted over a weekend in a relaxed and welcoming, community ambiance. Any individual who has an interest in technology or the issue being hacked can attend. Take South by Southwest for example, which invites hackers, creators, makers, and coders to converge. Hackers compete in three hack categories, Music, Film, and VR/A, to ‘push the boundaries of existing tech across entertainment media’. Ulrich Stacey, founder and CEO of DiversityLab? , led the 2015 Women in Law Hackathon to create new ideas to disrupt the stagnant dialogue vis--vis diversity in BigLaw? . Even at the University of Chicago, there are hackathon competitions across disciplines to create projects in 24 or 48 hours.

Recent History

Hackathons have not always been as proximate as they are now to household name status. They first entered the tech stratosphere circa 1999, when companies such as Open BSD and Sun Microsystems held in-company hackathons. Hackathons then gained mainstream traction in 2013. Growing computing capabilities have increased participants’ ability to progress solutions predicated on software, quite literally, overnight.

Anti-Hackathon Hackathons

There’s no want of hackathon naysayers. Critiques are articulated on several bases. These include:

  1. • hackathons are a form of labor appropriation due to work not being remunerated;
  2. hackathons are bad for innovation (creating a false sense of success, tackling stripped down challenges that are divorced from reality); and
  3. • hackathons are bad for health (sleep deprivation, junk food, booze, and caffeine being a potent combination).

The first critique admittedly has weight in the context of corporate or corporate-sponsored hackathons. In the public interest context however, it reads as the 21st century equivalent of critiquing a fundraising bake sale for being predicated on volunteers’ cake making. That criticism ignores the underlying motivating psychology of those preparing blondies and caramel slices, namely, the desire to contribute to others. The second critique seems premature. There is no substantive body of academic literature on hackathons given their nascence. The third provides a challenge to organizers (provide fresh fruit in addition to confectionery, in lieu of just the latter) but also should be contextualized – unless a true hackathon fanatic, the maxim everything in moderation suffices to respond.

The Software Sausage Factory

The ingredients of commercial software are often out of sight and out of mind, problematically inaccessible to the consumer. This begs the question – is hackathon-produced software free? Do hackathons promote the development of software that has a positive relationship with freedom?

Conflict of Interest

I profess a stake in this subject. Last month I led a mini-hackathon on improving literacy about women’s rights under international law, at the student-run, public interest Rebellious Lawyering Conference. In preparing for the session as a wet behind the ears, rights literacy enthusiast, I quickly realized that I had not considered the freedom implications of a hackathon session. Keen to avoid complicity in matters that can compromise democracy, I began to research free software hackathons. To my delight and relief, search engines soon revealed that great minds have ruminated over the relationship between the two. Better yet, they provide a how-to guide for the nervous organizer-to-be.

A Happy Marriage

Free software and hackathons make a handsome couple, as Richard Stallman describes:

Hackathons fit the spirit of a community in which people take an attitude of cooperation and respect towards each other. The software that accords with this spirit is free (libre) software, free as in freedom.

At their best, hackathons strengthen the spirit of sharing in attendees and communities. And accordingly hackathons make perfect sense within the free software frame. Contradistinctively, hackathons that do not engage with free software assault the community culture upon which they exist. But how does the novice organizer organize a pro-free software hackathon? For yours truly, a recent recruit to the free software sorority, this became an exercise in countering the convenience of not addressing the problem. Stallman assists. He counsels that hackathon developers must be expressly advised that 'you must agree to give the community the use of your project's results in freedom, if you ever consider them good enough to use or release.' Information regarding the GNU license regime should be provided. Moreover, a free software policy of the hackathon itself can be adopted. Hackathons should ask each participating project to pledge to follow this rule:

If you ever release or use this code or design, you will release its source code under a free (libre) license. If you distribute the code in executable form, you will make that free (libre) also.

Happily, these are facile steps to bake into a hackathon's foundations. They require little of the organizer and can hardly be skirted out of perceived inconvenience. Requesting a pledge can also function to encourage participants to be forward looking. Ending a hackathon with a pledge request, can, for example, situate hackathon attendees to contemplate the aftermath of their 24 hour pow-wow, to think about how their solution might grow legs.

The Head Fake

When we conceive of the hackathon’s net value add, we might first list the development of tools to respond to a pressing, complex problem. Multidisciplinary community building might be listed second. Hackathons serve an expressive function to boot, issuing a reverberating message to society writ large that this our Internet-based epoch and its tech gains offer more than merely facilitating the swift and cost effective delivery of takeaway pad Thai and or butter chicken. Critically, a free software hackathon offers an additional positive externality. A free software hackathon is a head fake, implicitly challenging today’s oppressive software development regime in a forum that ostensibly is working to achieve other objectives. The question is how to promote the adoption of free software principles in hackathons en masse – to Ulrich Stacey and SXSW alike.