Remake a museum

A group including designers, artists, coders and museum fans came together for a hackathon at the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle. Their aim was to think of ways to reimagine and remake the museum: innovative ideas that challenge what a museum is and what it means to its community.


For more information, please contact Robyn Taylor.

Why make a hackathon competitive?

I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on my experiences observing, participating in, and organizing hackathons and hackathon-like events while writing an article for Interactions (forthcoming) with colleagues from Indiana University. In the article, we focused on an event that we organised with members of a local hackerspace. Our goal as researchers was to test out the adoptability of the prompt we designed, and their goal as hackerspace members was to demonstrate to the non-members who would be attending how much fun they would have if they joined the community.

One key criticism we raised about how we organised our event was that the competition framing—which we unquestioningly adopted from similar hackathon “models”—seemed superficial, unnecessary, and in some ways antithetical to our original goals. The participants were not particularly interested in “winning” the hackathon, but were much more interested in having a chance to collaborate with each other in a fun and engaging way, in a context where they had no obligation to organise or teach. This particular insight may be very contextually-dependent, as hackerspace members are often put in such obligating “authority” or “teacher” roles when visitors come to the space. While many members enjoy playing through these roles occasionally, constant interruptions can inhibit progress on their own projects, so an event where they could just get their hands dirty was appealing to them.

HackathonIn reflecting on their own hackathon, D’Ignazio et al. propose in “Towards a Feminist Hackathon: The ‘Make the Breast Pump Not Suck!’ Hackathon” that a feminist hackathon might foreground the value of stakeholder conversations and new social relations as a “more effective path to change than the production of objects (rewarding winners)”. While these authors find value in the competition framing as long as it is not what is foregrounded in the event, I would take this argument a step further and say that it seems likely that the masculine language of competition and productivity we often used to justify participation in a hackathon limits the kinds of interactions and relationships that can take place. In other words, if the framing of one’s participation in a hackathon is bound up in being competitive and having the best ideas/designs/products out of any other team’s, then relationships that could potentially exist between teams are stifled; nobody wants to “betray” their team’s chances at winning.

From my experience, it seems that framing a hackathon as a fun time to mess around with technology in a collaborative space is much more aligned to “hacker culture” goals. However, as hackathons have become more and more appropriated for different contexts, this kind of justification is becoming a much harder sell.

A couple of questions I will be exploring in future work in this area include:

How can we find ways to discuss the value of the relationships that are developed through these events without relying on the silicon-valley language of “networking”?

How can we ethically leverage the positive experience of participating in collaborative projects to attract hackathon participants without falling into the exploitation traps that the FLOSS/OSS communities are currently dealing with?


For more information contact Austin Toombs.

Self Harmony: rethinking hackathons

Though there is an increasing amount of work on mental health within HCI, there is little work reported on digital technologies specifically for those affected by self-harm. A literature search showed that most existing work within the context of self-harm had been conducted within psychiatry and psychology, and I began to imagine the ways in which technologies could help those affected by self-harm: not just those who engage in the practice, but their friends and family, too.

We decided to configure and run a hackathon as an opportunity to explore the opportunities, challenges and best practices involved in designing for those affected by self-harm. Although there have been very few hackathons in such challenging contexts, we felt it was an excellent opportunity to bring together diverse communities of people in an environment where they could learn and create together.

Self Harmony hackathonAfter careful deliberation over an appropriate and sensitive name for the hackathon, we decided upon Self-Harmony and it ran over two days in April 2016. Teams of developers, makers, healthcare practitioners, and those with lived experience of self-harm were asked to conceptualise and prototype digital products or services for those affected by self-harm. Seven teams formed around three challenges and created seven diverse digital tools – ranging from a digital distraction box (shown above), to an e-stress ball.

Often with the end of a hackathon comes the dispersion of ideas, teams and concepts, and hackathons are often criticised for this very reason. We decided to extend the conventional hackathon format by holding a series of critical engagements with mental health clinicians and charity workers who provided appraisal of the prototypes and designs.

In doing this, we wanted to reveal the key strengths and limitations of the designs and expose design challenges for future HCI work that considers self-harm. The stakeholder critiques have also allowed us to consider the benefit of extending and rethinking hackathons as a design method in sensitive contexts.


For more information please contact Nataly Birbeck.