What is the secret of hackathon success?

UNSILO ran its first internal hackathon in December 2018. Hackathons have been around for several years, and are traditionally about building functional software in a short space of time; for this UNSILO event, restrictions of time, combined with the unique opportunity of bringing the entire team together from as far away as San Francisco, meant that the coding requirement was relaxed. Nonetheless, the event was a great success, with all five teams coming up with imaginative and fascinating ideas, and some at least of those teams actually coding a solution – fast work indeed, given that that hackathon took up less than a day, with only a few hours of interaction (although one or two teams were seen busily discussing ideas early in the evening, and some work continued at home).

The topic was to identify new solutions in the area of manuscript evaluation, following the successful launch of a trial version of UNSILO’s manuscript evaluation tools at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October. With a subject as broad as manuscript submission, it was not surprising that the results were so wide-ranging. The justification for looking at manuscript submissions is very clear: on average it takes more than 200 days for an academic paper to complete its journey from submission to publication, while over 50% of new submissions are rejected at an early stage. Clearly, this is a process that could benefit from efficiency improvements.

The day began with the teams being presented with five major challenges, ranging from relatively simple to highly advanced. Is there a way to do this better? Each of the five teams comprised a range of skills, which meant a wide perspective on the chosen challenge. The following day, each team presented their results, and teams voted for what they thought was the best solution.

I had never participated in a hackathon before, and for me one impressive outcome was the remarkable speed at which teams were able not only to ideate but also to assess the feasibility of potential solutions. This may have been the result of grouping people in ways that were outside their usual work relationships, which means they were able to bring a fresh approach to a current problem. Another unexpected outcome was how many team members stated they had learned something new about UNSILO’s own existing tools!

How to run a successful hackathon

Photos of the event reveal many of the participants eating throughout the event. And yes, perhaps the most popular food was pizza. The truth is out: the key to a successful hackathon is pizza!


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