Hackathons: intense and innovative programming retreats

What looks like an e-sport event with a load of gamers, is in reality an event where innovative projects are started, out-of-of-the-box thinking is cultivated, and important contacts made: this is a hackathon. It is a productive conference for software and hardware developers. In a hackathon, programmers work on a problem for a limited time and sometimes achieve astonishing projects and come up with brilliant ideas.

What is a hackathon?

The term hackathon is a blended word – a combination of “hacking” and “marathon.” However, if broken down in this way, the term could mislead many people, as hacking is usually associated with destructive, criminal activities. But this is not what is meant with a hackathon. “Hacking” in this context refers to solving technical problems in new and innovative ways. The approach of a hackathon is very constructive, and programmers work to create a useful product during these events.

Applying the term “marathon” to a hackathon is also not quite accurate. Although concentrated programming work is also hard work, generally speaking, software development is a time-consuming, drawn-out task. In a hackathon, on the other hand, you get a limited time slot, and the goal is that within a few hours or days, a working program code should be created – a strenuous sprint in application development, rather than a marathon.

Hackathons are usually centered around a certain topic, which in turn has an influence on the participants. There are developer conferences on certain types of applications (mobile apps, web applications, etc.), on a certain programming language, for the API of a specific service (Facebook, Google), or simply on a general topic (open government, accessibility, etc.).

Some hackathons also do away with set themes, and the development teams can then let their creativity run completely free. Participants are usually software developers – primarily (but by no means exclusively) programmers. Many well-known hackathons are also aimed specifically at students or those starting their careers. These conferences can also be a springboard for students and new programmers in particular. Big names from the IT industry are often present at these events, who are interested in discovering new talent.

There are other reasons for developers to participate in a hackathon. The possibility of networking with other specialists should not be underestimated, as well as exchanging knowledge. Furthermore, projects launched during a hackathon can mark the beginning of a long-term cooperation between team members, or other developers.

Last but not least, some organizers offer prizes – many hackathons are designed as competitions. At these events, a jury selects one or more winners after a presentation of the individual projects. The prizes may include smaller non-cash prizes, but cash prizes of several hundred thousand dollars are also often offered. Most hackathons do not charge a participation fee. This is due to the fact that many of these programming events originated from the open source scene, or at least feel committed to it, and are often targeted at students.


Hackathons are closely related to software development, but these kind of events happen for other experts, too, such as for designers, bicycle mechanics, and hardware developers.

What happens at a hackathon?

There are so many different hackathons, and all of them are characterized differently. Depending on the topic, duration, and size of the event, what happens and when changes between events. Nevertheless, there are some elements which stay the same.

  • Presentation: Almost every hackathon starts with an opening presentation by the organizers to give an overview of the event. Generally speaking, the main themes of the hackathon are introduced, as well as the schedule for the whole event.
  • Lectures: Some hackathons offer not only the possibility for joint application development, but also typical conference elements – such as lectures or workshops. These are mostly topics that fit the main theme of the event, and offer a wealth of information on it.
  • Pitch: After the theme has been announced, participants have the opportunity to suggest suitable project ideas to work on with others.
  • Team building: Usually the teams are not set up in advance, but are project-oriented and formed relatively spontaneously on site. The teams should aim to be as diverse as possible – a team with people with different expertise and from various backgrounds are more likely to have a project that progresses quicker.
  • Development work: After the team has been put together, the actual work begins. Together teams work out their initial idea, then collect possible solution strategies. It is rare that the projects are completely finished within the time period – that is not the aim of a hackathon. It is instead about finding creative solutions and exchanging ideas.
  • Sleeping & eating: At many events, food and sleep are put on the back burner – there isn’t much time for it. Quick snacks here and there, and short nights in sleeping bags are what can be expected. Of course, this does not necessarily have to be the case, with some event organizers also offering healthy catering, and a helping hand in searching for overnight accommodation.
  • Presentation: Especially at longer events there are often presentations to break up the schedule, which inform participants about the current status of the projects and highlight challenges. This may also be an opportunity to seek advice from other participants. At the end of the hackathon all participants give a presentation. This is not about a finished product, but more importantly, ideas on solving any issues or problems, and a concept to bring the project to a satisfactory conclusion.
  • Award ceremony: If a hackathon is competitive, the event ends with an award ceremony. Previously, the jury (usually consisting of organizers, prominent experts, or selected company representatives) have taken pictures of the projects at the presentations and subsequently selected one or more winners – often the participants can apply for different categories with their projects. Depending on the event, the teams can win prize money or non-cash prizes.

Hackathons across the US

Hackathons now exist almost all over the world – and there’s a huge variety of events all across the USA. New events are added every year. Here is a small selection of hackathons that are definitely worth a visit.



Founded in 2012, this is a student-run annual hackathon, which is known for attracting the best of the best. HackMIT is not beginner friendly – getting into this hackathon is itself something to be proud of, and competition is high. Many participants will have attended other prestigious hackathons. Attendance is usually around 1,000 “hackers.”


Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts

Projects of note:

  • Kinarity (2015) is a project which originated at HackMIT and aims to help the blind navigate and discover the world around them.
  • LeanOnMe (2015) matches those in need of peer support for their mental health with volunteer peers on campus.
  • Pusheats (2016) promotes healthy living by offering users the possibility to improve their eating habits. The animated cat Pusheen is the mascot of the app, and also inspired the name.



A free hackathon for students, HackTech accepts 400 undergraduate and graduate students, and even sometimes high-school students. It lasts for 36 hours and is open to beginners too. Travel costs are reimbursed, or in the form of a free bus if you live in California.


Caltech in Pasadena, California

Projects of note:

  • HowAmIfeeling AR is a project that aims to help children with autism improve their ability to recognize and control their emotions through an interactive AR game.
  • MoodTunes is an extension for the Chrome internet browser, which helps take preventative measures for your mental health. It is developed so people who are feeling low can listen to certain music categories which stimulates the same musical relief as someone close to them comforting them.
  • Piccoku – much like hackathon, Piccoku is a portmanteau, blending the words “picture” and “haiku,” and is a program to transform your pictures into haiku poems.



Founded in 2014, this hackathon now focuses mainly on open source programming, and is open to teams and individuals alike. There are team formation workshops for those who arrive alone, and food and accommodation is provided on site. HackIllinois runs over an entire weekend, including Friday evening.


Urbana-Champaign campus, University of Illinois, Champaign, IL

Projects of note:

  • Intelligent Transplants was developed to predict the viability of organ transplants using synthetic data based on worldwide organ transplant trends. The aim is to improve how organs are used, and to help the decision of when transplants can be made.
  • FyveBot is an app for the extra five minutes in your day. It collects short articles, similar to snackable content, and based on your interests gives you new concepts and topics to learn about.
  • FreeWatch is a project to turn old, unused smartphones into smart home surveillance systems – ideal for those who cannot finance an expensive system.


What? Another elite hackathon, PennApps claims to be the world’s largest college hackathon. Founded in 2009, this hackathon lasts 36 hours, and has recently tried to incorporate healthy living as part of hacking, with yoga and running offered over the course of the event. “Graduates” of this hackathon have gone on to sell the companies and idea that they come up with at PennApps, and getting into the hackathon is certainly something that will look good on a programmer’s resume.


University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Projects of note?

  • Tacteyele (2017) won the third place prize in the PennAppsXV hackathon, and was inspired by a team member with Parkinson’s disease, who found it almost impossible to use the computer, as navigating a cursor requires fine motor skills. Using facial detection technology, Tacteyele tracks the movement of your head and facial expressions, moving the cursor as you move your head, clicking when you wink, or responding to voice commands.
  • Mindful (2017) keeps track of your mental health, just by saving data from your iPhone usage. The idea is that your online behavior and communication with friends can indicate how you’re feeling, and by tracking what your write using the iOS keyboard, mindful can give you an overview of how you’ve been doing.
  • Theia (2016) aims to make eye care accessible to all by providing low cost care to those in poorer countries, or to those with limited healthcare access.