CMP Series

How to Plan a Hackathon

Once synonymous with high-tech, hackathons have gone mainstream, multiplying and morphing into new models — bringing a new wave of innovation and interactive learning to conferences and meetings.

In September, the MIT Media Lab in Boston hosted a “Make the Breast Pump Not Suck” hackathon.
In September, the MIT Media Lab in Boston hosted a “Make the Breast Pump Not Suck” hackathon. Photo courtesy Che-Wei Wang.

The hackathon — an amalgam of “hacking” and “marathon” — surfaced about 15 years ago, around the time that Sun Microsystems (now Oracle) sponsored its first one at the 20,000-attendee JavaOne software developers conference in San Francisco. But the popular image of hackathons born in that era — a windowless room filled with coders pounding on keyboards for hours on end, ankle-deep in empty Red Bull cans and pizza boxes — is due for an upgrade.

Hackathons have gone mainstream, popping up at conferences in sectors as diverse as museums, retail, and health care, and incorporating participants’ non-technical experience and knowledge along with their technology skills. “Hackathons have emerged from the hacker and tech culture,” said Anne-Laure Fayard, an associate professor of management at the New York University Polytechnic School of Engineering (NYU Poly), “and now are being reinterpreted by different crowds.”

Consider these recent examples:

1. In September, when the MIT Media Lab in Boston hosted a “Make the Breast Pump Not Suck” hackathon, participants included breast-pump vendors, software developers, and nursing mothers, some of whom brought their babies along with them.

2. “Hack Meat” events in New York City and Palo Alto, California, have brought together software developers, entrepreneurs, food-policy experts, and food-industry executives, who work together to rapidly prototype new ideas and products that might affect how meat is produced, processed, and consumed. (One winner, CowShareWithUs, allows consumers to buy grass-fed beef directly from farmers online.)

3. The ACEP Code Red Hackathon, held in Chicago on Oct. 24–26, the weekend before the annual Scientific Assembly of the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP), merged the experience of clinicians with skills brought to the table by computer programmers, engineers, and business developers. Participants worked in self-organized teams to create products and solutions that address such emergency-medicine challenges as patient-doctor communication and geriatric emergency medicine.

While hackathons originally focused on “hacking” code, they “are now becoming increasingly popular and are a mode of organizing for solving problems and developing solutions collaboratively,” Fayard said. “I see [hackathons] as the offline version — or complement to — open innovation and crowdsourcing platforms.”

The ACEP Code Red Hackathon in Chicago on Oct. 24–26 merged the experience of clinicians with skills brought to the table by computer programmers, engineers, and business developers.


Mark Mackey, a Chicago-based emergency physician and a member of the ACEP Board of Directors, describes himself as “a middle-aged guy with limited technology skills.” But when a pediatric emergency-medicine resident and member of the ACEP-affiliated Emergency Medicine Residents Association (EMRA) suggested that ACEP create a hackathon at the Scientific Assembly, Mackey agreed to use his position and contacts to help make it happen. “As a society, we pride ourselves on being innovative,” Mackey said. “This fits right in with our mission.”

As a society, we pride ourselves on being innovative. This fits right in with our mission.

Hackathons that combine diverse skills and disciplines, such as the one organized by ACEP, are more difficult to design than those that are strictly technical, Fayard said. One of Mackey’s organizing strategies was to connect with expert partners, including those at 1871, a 50,000-square-foot facility inside the Merchandise Mart in downtown Chicago, where digital startups rent work space and which functions collectively as an entrepreneurial hub. (Mackey Googled “hackathon” and “Chicago,” and learned that 1871 hosted many of the events.)

The 1871 space was the physical location for the hackathon, and also linked ACEP with Chicago Health Tech/Health 2.0, a volunteer-run group that organizes conferences, hackathons, and other events for health-tech entrepreneurs at 1871. Having the right space for a hackathon is only one part of the story, said Fayard. At NYU Poly, the student-run Greenhouse is a flexible work and meeting space built to encourage cross-pollination and collaboration among the university’s schools and colleges. Last month, The Greenhouse hosted a “Hack Ebola” hackathon. What made the program successful — a couple of the ideas are now being prototyped — was the presence of experts to share context but also give feedback and define specific problem statements, as well as the diversity of the group, Fayard said.

In designing a hackathon, ACEP was assisted by Chicago Health Tech as well as MIT Hacking Medicine, a three-year-old initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which has organized health-technology–related hackathons around the globe. The partners — ACEP, EMRA, Chicago Health Tech, and MIT Hacking Medicine — planned the Code Red Hackathon, developing problem statements during conference calls in the months leading up the event, said Subbu Arumugam, Chicago Health Tech’s director and the founder of a Chicago-based health-technology startup. Code Red had a typically intense hackathon structure — it opened with a keynote on Friday night, then teams worked on Saturday and Sunday before pitching their ideas to judges. Arumugam said: “It’s not rocket science.”

One key element of any hackathon is participation, and the Code Red partners each used their own communication channels to encourage registration. The $20 hackathon tickets were available through Eventbrite; ACEP and EMRA members who registered for the Scientific Assembly could have their hackathon tickets refunded. Of the 150 people who signed up for the hackathon, about 20 were emergency-medicine clinicians. While a relatively small number, Arumugam said, that level of participation by clinicians had an impact on the quality of the ideas that were generated. “The beautiful thing with ACEP,” he said, was the diversity of experience among the participating clinicians, who ranged from well-established physicians like Mackey to medical students. “I see a lot of hackathons, but the products produced [at Code Red] were really on point. With some refinements, they were viable products.

“Forget hackathons for a minute,” Arumugam added. “Any time a team is trying to build a health-IT product, if they don’t have access to clinicians, or if a clinician isn’t providing input, they are working in a vacuum. The difference [at Code Red] was that we had challenges and problems articulated by clinicians.”

The winning team, made up of clinicians, business developers, and programmers, designed a smartwatch app to help first responders correctly administer medications to patients suffering cardiac arrest outside the hospital. Team members won $1,000 each, provided by sponsors, and presented their app at innovatED, a showcase for emerging technologies on ACEP’s exhibition floor.

Arumugam said he expects that linking the clinical experience and brainpower that comes together at a medical meeting with the technical and entrepreneurial resources of a hackathon program will become a trend. One reason for his confidence: In the week following Code Red, he got a call about organizing a hackathon for a cardiologist whose association plans to meet in Chicago sometime in the future.


Hackathons may have been invented to accelerate innovation, but a byproduct of the team-based model is interactive, peer-to-peer learning. “Hackathons are fun,” said Don Dennison, a Waterloo, Ontario–based medical-informatics consultant, who organized the inaugural SIIM Hackathon at the 2014 Annual Meeting of the Society for Imaging Informatics in Medicine in Long Beach, California, last May. “And they are a great way to learn about new technology.”

SIIM’s members are professionals whose work is inherently technology-based, including radiologists and other medical-image specialists. The SIIM Hackathon, which was open only to SIIM members and invited industry experts, was intended to be a place where participants could get their hands on new software tools — provided by sponsors — and experiment with them. “Our goal was to help develop new products and give members an opportunity to learn by doing,” said Dennison, who is a member of the SIIM Board of Directors. “I’m just a believer that you can read about something and learn to [do it on] one level. But in order to really learn something, you need to try the thing described.”

SIIM’s board has committed to hosting the hackathon for three years. The event was deliberately low-key for its debut year, as organizers tested the format as well as interest and participation. There were no prizes or product demonstrations, and the event was facilitated by volunteers, including designated “Code Heroes,” who were SIIM members identified as having outstanding technical skills. The hackathon was held concurrently with SIIM’s conference, in a room separate from education sessions and the exhibition floor but easily accessible to members. The room was intentionally small, Dennison said, so no matter how many people turned out for the hackathon, it would look full. Seating was arranged to facilitate group activity, and “we put out a bunch of energy drinks and sodas.”

As it turned out, the hackathon was a big hit, even without the lure of prizes. There was so much interest in the program, in fact, that SIIM scheduled an ad hoc standing-room-only session at the end of the meeting where participants shared their innovations. Dennison and his colleagues are already thinking about how to tweak next year’s hackathon, including potentially adding a pre-meeting “How to Hack” boot camp. This year’s hackathon “was a ton of work to pull off, but worth every minute,” Dennison said. “When you give smart, creative people effective new tools, they can do amazing things in a short period of time.”

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Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor and director of digital content.