How to organize a Hackathon for data scientists: a Datathon

In 2016 I gave birth to a Datathon in Munich: The TEF Data Challenge. A weekend competition where teams coded using real telco data in an attempt to solve the challenge and win a drone, a VR set or a PlayStation. 

Reasons to organize a Datathon: 
  • to build an employer brand that attracts tech and data talent
  • to directly recruit top data talent for open positions
  • to complement the company's brand strategy
  • to get top management to connect with millennials, geeks and data talent
  • to build partnerships with Universities and the start-up ecosystem
  • to generate content for a cool comms campaign
  • to give more responsibility to junior employees
  • to foster agile and cross-department team work

Orga team:
I recruited a cross functional team from 7 different areas within the company. Each of them played an important and fundamental role in the organization and the success of the hackathon. Some of the most important tasks were:
  • Legal advised on how the data needed to be grouped/anonym and produced the forms together with HR that every participant had to sign in order to get access to the data. 
  • Data protection approved the legal forms and advised on the event protocol to check-in, save and delete the personal data of the participants.
  • HR designed the employer brand and recruiting campaign @ all social media comms via Eventbrite, Facebook, Twitter and local universities and recruited the moderator and speakers.
  • PR aligned all HR communications with the company's guidelines. 
  • Marketing helped to designed the cool promotional stuff and they distribute the HR social media content. 
  • The Workers Council made sure our people could be at the Datathon over the weekend while complying with work hour regulations. 
  • Market Intelligence provided and prepared the data for the challenge.

Most hackathons offer facilities to sleep overnight in order to attract participants also from outside the city were it is taking place. I made the decision not to because:

  • Firstly in Munich there is a strong and talented student and junior professionals community so we did not need to attract talent from outside the city. 
  • And secondly the location we chose did not allow sleepovers and the legal implications of requesting an exception were huge (and expensive!)
When choosing the location these were my must-haves:
  • big enough to host 40 - 100 PAX, depending on budget and how many participants you'd like to have. A small Hackathon has 8 teams of 5 and a big one 20 or more.
  • the number of participants determines the number of tables/working spaces that you need. One table for each team with enough separation between the tables so they can work privately and comfortably. If your teams have 5 participants (for example), make the math, you need between 8 and 20 tables. *
  • you need a strong and stable wifi network. The up-to-100 participants will be working online simultaneously on that network!
  • you also need a common space where all the participants can come together, meet and form the teams, learn about the challenge and attend the talks. In this space is where HR and your company will do the "show": the welcome, the company's presentation, the explanation of the challenge and will host the hackathon talks . In this space you need a projector, a microphone, chairs, cushions or whatever for the participants to sit.
  • you will also need cable extensions. Lots and lots of them. Imagine a small event: 40 participants, each brings one or two computers plus a cell phone. In some locations plugs are on the walls and not close to where you set up the working stations, there you need cable extensions! 
  • if the location does not have air conditioning and it is summer... buy ventilators. It gets really really really warm when 100 people bring one or two computers and have them running non stop for hours!!! 
  • the coffee machine is as important as the wifi connection. For 50-100 people working non stop during the weekend, you'll probably need two or three. I will talk more about the rest of the drinks and food in the following section.
* The original hackathons were designed for developers and for single participants, not teams! so the team tables and separation between them were not necessary. One single long table did the job. The participants worked on their computers with the privacy screens and did not need physical separation for working privately. But when you organize a Datathon, you need a team, a mix of skills that you will rarely find in one single person. The team is a must to solve the challenge and therefore each team needs some separated working space to give them privacy to work freely.

Food and drinks
In a hackathon you need to feed the participants like they are your children: breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks in between.  When you are on a budget and you need to feed 20-somethings for two days you are the one with a challenge! So as bad as it sound, salads won't fill them up but pizza will. 
You need:

  • Water. In 1L bottles so that way you will have less plastic to recycle!
  • Club Mate is a must if you are organizing a hackathon in Germany. They prefer it before Coke or Red Bull.
  • Breakfast: on Saturday when they checked in I organize sandwiches, cereal, yogurt and croissants. 
  • Snacks: I offered carrot sticks and humus as the healthy option but also chips, candy, popcorn and ice cream.
  • Chew gum was a winner after every meal we distributed a pack of mint chew gums and they were so happy! of course so many hours without a toothbrush...
  • Pizza for dinner one night and the second night we did burritos and nachos from a Mexican place close to the location. We had Indian food for lunch on Saturday and Lebanese the second day. 

We use Foodora and in the end the food is going to work for you is the one of a place close to the location. To order via Foodora allows you to keep the food budget under control but it also means you need to deal with delays.

Registration and non-show rate
There is a standard over 50% non-show rate when it comes to hackathons. This is true when you offer sleepovers and people from outside the city register online. I knew this and to minimize the non-show rate I did the following:

Our registration form was long and detailed. If you want in, you need to invest time in making me believe you want to participate. Once they have spent 20 minutes registering, they see the value. Or only the ones with a serious interest will spend the 20 minutes registering.
  • We used Eventbrite. Some Hackathons charge you 5 or 10 EUR to do the same, try to reduce the non-show rate. We did not charge, we created a questionnaire linked to our challenge that raised their interest and showed them the value of participating.
Three things you can do to minimize the non-show rate:
  • prizes: if the prizes are attractive enough they will sign up and come.
  • comms strategy: if you engage with them after the registration without boring them but informing them every time of new cool stuff they will get if they attend (one email, about the food menu, another one with a video of the drone in action that they could win, etc.)  
  • confirm, confirm, confirm. Two weeks before the event get them to confirm online and if not, give the place to someone in the waiting list!
Agenda, talks and speakers
I will be brief here because you plan your agenda, talks and speakers accordingly to your challenge. 
  • Check in on Saturday morning should be early but not too early, we opened doors at 9:00 am. On Sunday I opened at 7:30 am.
  • I closed doors on Saturday at midnight. On Sunday we did the presentation of the solutions before lunch and the price ceremony after lunch so we closed doors after the usual networking at around 6:00pm.
  • I offered two talks on Saturday afternoon. 30 mins each. And I also offered the option to watch the semifinal of a football game between Germany and Italy. I ordered beer for the occasion. None of the participants drank a single beer or watched the game. They just wanted to work and win!
  • Lunch was always planned at 1 pm for an hour. Dinner was at 8pm. A second dinner was at 10pm.
Other stuff:
And here some other stuff that is super important but you do not think about: 
  • name tags for the participants, let them write their own names, most of them like to use alias and not their real names. They register with their real names, but when they work or are presented 
  • Volunteers: I recruited volunteers who helped with the general cleaning, garbage, the distribution of drinks and food. 
  • In the first edition we ignored merchandising. I also had no budget for it... in the second edition we did stickers and T-shirts!  
  • do not forget to ask about allergies and food preferences in the registration form!

You want to know more about organizing a Hackathon? Let me know: