Steps to a successful Hackathon

Concept Visualizing

Before you can start organizing your hackathon, it is important to clarify your event concept or theme. Why are you doing this? Who you will engage? And how you will engage them? Here are some questions to guide you in thinking through the concept visualization process:

While hackathons have many benefits it’s also important to know when *not* to do a hackathon. You should *not* do a hackathon if you can answer the question: “I want an app that does X.” Essentially, if you already know the solution, go ahead and build it yourself or hire a contractor.

Identifying Your Goals

Every hackathon has a theme- whether it’s to bring together all of New York City’s tech interns for the summer to see what they come up with or to develop solutions for the next best mobile app predicting New York City weather patterns.

In order to come up with the theme of your hackathon you need to start by outlining the objectives of your event before you begin planning. What are you trying to accomplish? The way you organize your event will vary depending on whether you are seeking to find solutions, engage the community, scout talent, etc. Here are a few ways to get started:

  1. Identify outcomes of the hackathon that would define success
  2. Identify the various Challenge Owners (see Participants section) of the hackathon and their goals in participating. Some Challenge Owners could be:
    • Your agency
    • Your agency or partners you may be working with to source challenges
  3. Identify the audience that can help solve the challenges and accomplish your agency’s desired outcomes. Are these software developers? Data scientists? Policy analysts?

Types of Hackathons

Once you have identified your goals, you need to select the logistical format and theme for your hackathon. Here are some of the most popular formats and themes.

Creating Challenges

Hackathon challenges serve to guide attendees towards the goal you would like to accomplish. We recommend presenting between 2-5 challenges in order to provide participants with a variety of options to choose from with one of the challenges remaining an “open” or “wild card” category for creative submissions from attendees. Here is one way you can go about sourcing challenges from your agency:

Survey your team / agency

Use an online survey tool like SurveyMonkey or WizeHive to set up a survey to send out to your team members. Include survey questions such as:
  1. What is the biggest non-operational problem you are facing in trying to accomplish the mission driving your work?
  2. What are the top three challenges of our sector?
  3. We are considering putting on a hackathon in order to accomplish (write your goal here). What are some issues you would like to have this audience help you address?

Give your team / agency a deadline by which they need to fill out the survey.

After having sourced challenge statements the next step is to vet the challenges according to potential feasibility and alignment with your agency’s goals. Go through the survey responses with your Commissioner or another stakeholder in the success of the hackathon and identify 2-4 challenge statements that you feel are (1) best-aligned with your agency’s goals and (2) challenges you can envision solutions to that you would be able to work with / procure.

Intellectual Property Rights

Thinking through Legal Implications

Please note that this guide does not constitute legal advice and it is imperative that you engage your legal counsel in the design phase of your hackathon to ensure compliance. Here are some things you should consider and talk through with your agency’s legal counsel:

  1. Outreach to any sponsors/partners; do they present conflicts; who is permitted to do asks and from whom under Chapter 68 and other laws; what is appropriate to receive and how acknowledgement is given?
  2. Entry rules setting the baseline – participants agree in advance to ground rules, what you will be acquiring (nothing, license, procurement type arrangement), just use in summing up and documenting event?
  3. What information will be supplied to be used in the event and is it confidential? (e.g., PII, data protected by special laws or statutes – usually educational, social service, SSN, addresses, etc.)
  4. Agreements with sponsors, venues, partners if there are more than negligible commitments or particularly where you are paying for space rental, staff, etc.
  5. Prizing, judging, structure of selection to avoid illegal lottery or sweepstakes. Generally, merit-based selection is required.


Once you have settled on the goals and challenges, you’ll need to start working on logistics and “run-of-show” items:

How long will your event be? Consider who can attend a 6 hour vs 12 hour vs 24 hour hackathon. Also consider how much time is required to meet the challenge.
Will you have speakers or workshops to engage attendees?
Will there be a kickoff and demo? Who will be the Master of Ceremonies? Will you want speakers from your agency? Will you invite Elected Officials?

There are companies, nonprofits and educational institutions or programs who can provide venues and who specialize in executing hackathons and have experience working with government. It may be worthwhile to explore contracting to take care of this element of the event if you have the budget for it. If you decide to run this in-house be sure to loop in appropriate agency staff when discussing these details and encourage that staff to attend (and volunteer!) in at least 3 hackathons to get a feel for what this kind of event is like.

Additional notes:
-Food or swag breaks are fun ways to take pauses during the day and give participants a chance to recharge.
-Some sponsors come up with side puzzles for participants to solve for extra prizes. This can be fun but may distract from working on the theme / challenges of the day.

Event Length

When considering how long to make your hackathon, the key is to keep the event long enough so that actual ideas or prototypes can be developed while keeping the event short enough to attract your target audience. For example, a 24-hour hackathon is appealing to younger professionals but less appealing to professionals with families. Other ideas and things to keep in mind:

  • Longer hackathons (1-2 days) are harder to organize and more costly, but give participants more time to produce robust ideas / prototypes.
  • Hackathons are typically held over a weekend to prevent people from missing work / school or taking vacation time to participate.
  • It is possible to take on a ‘relay’ format of having certain participants ‘compete’ for a 6-hour leg, 12-hour leg or 24-hour leg, opening the event up to more types of participants while still keeping it competitive.

Speakers & Workshops

Consider having speakers or workshops at your event. Speakers can be sponsors or challenge owners and can talk about their subject matter expertise as it relates to the challenges or theme of the hackathon. This is also a great way to give other agencies and elected officials a voice at the event. Be sure to keep presentations brief and relevant as you want to keep the event focused on attendees creating new things!

Consider holding workshops to teach attendees new skills or provide information related to the challenge. Workshops can take place a few weeks before the hackathon or the day-of. This kind of additional programming is a great way to leverage the hackathon to raise awareness about your agency and the causes you support.


Hackathon participants attend these events for a variety of reasons:

  • To learn new skills
  • To put new skills to practice
  • To meet other people in their field
  • To have fun!
  • To meet and learn from more experienced people in their field
  • To experiment with new datasets, APIs, or other tools
  • To gain recognition
  • To win prizes!

Post Event

Participant feedback:

Start thinking about what needs to happen after the hackathon *before* the hackathon. You’ll want feedback from every type of stakeholder (see Participants section) via surveying and potentially through one-on-one conversations as well. In order to ensure that you get the most valuable feedback possible, create the surveys before the event so that you can send the surveys out the day after the event.


Make sure that as you source the challenges for your hackathon and identify the Challenge Owners (see Participants section) that you develop a plan for how to ensure implementation of any ideas produced from the hackathon. Perhaps this is a presentation of the winning ideas to decision-makers at your agency after the hackathon or awarding the winning team the opportunity to do a pilot with your agency. Another option is to provide all event attendees with a handout about your agency or the issue the hackathon is focused on so that they can learn more even after the hackathon ends. Take the time to think this element through well in advance to ensure the hackathon has the intended outcome for your agency.

Additional Best Practices

Event Kickoff

The event kickoff is often the first part of the day and a great time to get all participants briefed on the day’s schedule, logistics, ground rules and to present challenges. A sample kickoff schedule may look like this:
  • Introduction by event organizer (10 minutes)
  • Challenge owners present their challenges (5 minutes each)
  • Invited speakers say a few words (2 minutes each)
  • Wrap up by event organizer (2 minutes)

Participant Team Selection

Facilitating the formation of teams for hackathons is important and can take a few different approaches:
  • After introducing the challenges, give participants the opportunity to pitch a possible solution and then allow other participants to team up around their favorite solution.
  • Enable participants to form teams before the event by hosting a happy hour / networking session or closing registration a few days before the event to enable team formation online via a community site.

Solution Demos

Demos are the culminating point of a hackathon, where all of the ideas are showcased.
  • Ensure you have all of IT support required for both PCs and Macs
  • Provide presenters with requirements on final presentation format and length
  • Ideally have a quick ‘tech rehearsal’ to ensure the demo can go smoothly
  • Plan at least 10 minutes for each team to demo (assume 2-3mn to set up the team, a 3mn. Demo and 3-4mn of Q&A from judges).

Be mindful of the date you’re selecting

Keep in mind major holidays (Memorial Day, Labor Day, 4th of July) and events (elections); people will likely have plans to be out of town and attendance may be lower than anticipated as a result. Also keep in mind holy days for different communities (Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, etc.)

Code of Conduct

This enables you to establish ground rules on how everyone will treat one another through the event--without harassment or discrimination.