Hack day computers hands
Credit: Image by mozillaeu on Flickr. Creative commons licence. Some rights reserved
Journalists, developers and designers are coming together both within their news organisations at hack day events, and outside the office at meet-up groups to network, discuss and collaborate on news-related projects.

From news outlets planning to run hack day events, and organisations running other forms of meet-up groups, through to those keen to take part in such events themselves, this feature aims to offer a range of pointers from those experienced in hack day organising on how to get the most out of them and why they are beneficial.

The Knight-Mozilla OpenNews project has found the sponsoring of hack days a useful mechanism for engaging with those interested in the intersection of journalism, technology and open data.

In fact 2012 has seen the project take "a major initiative" in the hack day side of things, project director Dan Sinker told Journalism.co.uk, adding that "by the end of the calendar year we will have sponsored somewhere in the order of between 20 and 25 hack days all around the world".

Another organisation working in the area of hack day-style events is Hacks/Hackers, which launched in 2009 in the US. Its presence has since grown to chapters based across the world - including one in Brighton which is organised by Journalism.co.uk's technology editor Sarah Marshall.

And news outlets are also running hack days internally themselves. This year the Financial Times ran its first hack day event (there are videos from the two-day event on YouTube) and two years ago RBI ran a hacks and hackers hack day with ScraperWiki.

This feature hears from Chrys Wu, a user engagement strategist and a co-organiser of the New York City group of Hacks/Hackers, Stephen Pinches, group product manager for FT.com, Dan Sinker, director of the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews project and Karl Schneider, editorial development director for Reed Business Information (RBI).

First they share just some of the benefits to be gained through involvement in collaborative projects which bring together different skillsets.

The benefits
  • To find strength in numbers
Wu said the idea for Hacks/Hackers came about because different groups such as journalists, developers and designers "need each other right now".

"An individual has only so much capacity, whether it's learning capacity or time," she explained. "So I think that what ends up happening is you find people who really like to get something done but they don't necessarily have all of the skills necessary to do it."

"... Everyone has a point at which it benefits them to work with others to understand what's happening and also make something that they are interested in".
  • To build communities and increase interaction
A key element of hack day events is building new interactions and new communities.

"The central output of a hack day is community," OpenNews's Dan Sinker said. It is about "getting people together that haven't interacted before, or haven't interacted in this way [and giving them] a chance to meet, a chance to really discuss the things that are interesting to them, the core values that are interesting to them and the problem sets that are interesting to them".

One tip for those organising such events is to not to worry too much on the physical results in terms of products.

The central output of a hack day is communityDan Sinker
"The code that gets output in any hack day is very, very rarely shippable. It's usually the starting bit of an idea that may turn into a thing that may eventually become something actual," Sinker added.

"Expecting that in 24 hours a group of people who often haven't met before, collaborated before, are really going to be outputting shipping level code is setting yourself up for failure.

"To me the real win of hack days and what's really exciting about seeing so many happening this year is that it means you're really engaging with a developer community and a hacker community that is becoming very interested in the same types of problem spaces that journalism is interested in and building those relationships is only going to be good for everyone."

That human element is the best part of what comes out of a hackathonChrys Wu
Chrys Wu added that when Hacks/Hackers first began "the desire was to get people together to actually interact and collaborate".

"That's one of the things I've heard from so many of the chapters around the world is what they like so much is getting together in person and being able to set aside any sort of politics or competition and actually working with people that they know or have heard of and getting to know those people whose work they admire, or whose work interests them and they don't actually know names yet.

"... That human element is the best part of what comes out of a hackathon."
  • To increase conversations in and around the newsroom
And the benefits are not just to be enjoyed on the day(s) of the hack event. It has been two years since RBI ran its hacks and hackers hack day, but this "accelerated" the bringing together of different groups of people in the company which continues today, editorial development director Karl Schneider said.

"I think it made people realise that we needed to find ways to bring these two skillsets together".

He added that some participants, upon return to their market teams, were "prompted" by the hack event "to go and talk to the developers", and that it "also raised people's awareness of some of the more technology-related things that we could do on our sites".

And the FT's Stephen Pinches added that since its hack day event earlier this year, "there are certainly more corridor conversations taking place".

"I wouldn't say there's been a ground-breaking change in relationships between editorial and tech, generally the relationship is pretty good anyway, but there are definitely more conversations happening, more casual contact."
  • An opportunity for staff to showcase talents
Pinches added that the hack day also gives team members an opportunity to showcase their skills in a new environment.

"It also just gave us a bit of a sense of teamwork and a chance to just step away from the day-to-day job, which I think you can appreciate is always good, so it was a day to just let everyone's brains just free wheel a little bit."

So, with the benefits highlighted, here are some of their top tips for running a successful hack day or meet-up, as well as some pointers for those taking part on how to get the most out of such events.

Practical tips
  • Getting started: What makes a good meet-up organiser?
When it comes to setting up your own meet-up group, such as a Hacks/Hackers chapter, Wu had some tips on the sort of people who would best suit such a role.

"They should have a lot of energy because it really does take a lot of time," she said. "They should have really good local contacts because these are all do-it-yourself organisations and so having local contacts makes it a lot easier than to find space and perhaps find people who are willing to pay for things like the intermittent expenses that come up."

She added that the hack day organiser is likely to be someone "who really has their ear to the ground, who is looking for and knows of others who can come and give presentations or teach or give talks".

She advised not to go it alone. "We've found that it helps to have at least two or more people step up to be the organisers because it takes a lot of time and effort.

"So what we recommend is you have some combination of at least one person with a journalism background, one person with a development background, it's also nice to have somebody with a design background as well."
  • Consider different hack event styles
Wu added that its meet-up chapters tend to do four different kinds of things: presentations, workshops, hackathons and/or socials.

She added that "workshops work really well where it's much smaller groups, where people are actually doing stuff hands-on".

Alternatively hackathons give "an opportunity for people who have different sets of skills to come together and make something in a short time and learn more about what it is to be working in a collaborative environment".

And larger chapters tend to organise socials.
  • Try to give structure and as much focus as possible to the day
OpenNews's Sinker said that as "the central point of a hack day is time to hack", it is important to make sure the day is structured well and gets participants "in the right mindset".

Where hack days often fail is there is far too much 'I don't know what I want to do', and people spend a really long time hemming and hawing instead of really getting to workDan Sinker
"Where hack days often fail is there is far too much 'I don't know what I want to do', and people spend a really long time hemming and hawing instead of really getting to work."

He added that having a theme, and focus for the hack day, can help. "One of the things that we really insisted on with all of the hack days we sponsored this year was that they were actually themed, so these weren't just 'let's come and hack the news', which is a really broad ask and takes a really long time for people to be able to wrap their head around what that means and what they could do.

"We've gone for much more focused things such as a 'campaign finance data hack weekend', or 'timeline hacking'. And I've definitely found if you are able to really put in a clear theme or a clear ask on what you want you're going to have much crisper outputs on the other end."

RBI's Schneider added that he also feels that for the publisher "smaller-scale, local things in individual markets" with a focus on "a particular business challenge in that market", would work best for them in the future.

"We experimented with that sort of thing in a couple of markets already and I suspect that going forward that's where the biggest opportunities lie rather than to do a big cross-company thing again."

At the FT's hack day this year the company did not "prescribe anything to the developers, we just said here's a load of ideas, here are some themes which are important to the business, off you go," Pinches added.

On reflection he said when they do another "we might be a little more focused" in telling people what the real opportunities they see for the business "so that they're focusing on solving the right problems".

"It's getting the balance right between forcing people to do certain things or giving them a lot of guidance and a lot of steering as to what you think would be good and giving them complete free reign and you have to get that balance just right."
  • Find the right balance of skillsets
And when recruiting participants, think about the ratio of skillsets you will need on the day. Sinker said that with the OpenNews-sponsored hack days they use tickets to ensure the right mix of people.

"We do that so that we can make sure we're getting the right combination of skills in the room, so we actually theme our tickets according to the different types of skillsets that we want to have, whether that's developers, or designers, or data experts or journalists.

"We try to game out the actual skillsets in the room in advance, and I think that a real challenge to journalism hack days is being able to make some tough decisions about who you want in the room and really work to get there."
  • Engage with departments through pre-hack day discussion
And interaction and collaboration between staff does not have to wait until the hack day itself, as the FT's Pinches explains.

"We did a lot of work before the actual hack day, so we spent about two months beforehand prepping everybody and priming everybody". He added that the amount of preparation may not be necessary next time they organise such an event, but said it meant editorial staff were "very much involved in the idea generation", as well as other departments, using Google docs to collect ideas.

"I think we got about 150 ideas from all round the business: from sales, from marketing, from editorial, from Hong Kong, from New York, from all of our offices".
  • As a participant, be prepared!
Ahead of the event participants are encouraged to prepare and come armed with ideas, as well as an open mind.

Come ready to work, come with really good ideas, come ready to give up on those ideasDan Sinker
"Come ready to work, come with really good ideas, come ready to give up on those ideas," Sinker said. "You want people coming in the door with ideas but you also want them to be able to change those or jettison them quite quickly."

Pinches also highlighted the importance of preparation. "Some teams turned up on the morning of the hack, opened up their MacBooks and they just got going. They knew exactly what they were doing, they had all their code repository set up ready to go.

"So I think if you are doing a hack, if you're a developer then if you've got all that set up ... it can be really valuable.

"If you just turn up and you haven't really thought of an idea and you don't have any of your tools ready to go, you can waste a day getting everything set up."
  • Where possible, bring in external voices and input
At the FT's hack day event this year, as well as their own staff taking part, the FT also invited input from outside the organisation, which Pinches said he would recommend to others.

The Financial Times brought in people from Facebook, marketing and technology agency LBi, the FT's parent company Pearson and the Guardian. He added that this resulted in a lot of "fresh insight".

"It added a bit of a competitive edge to the day which I think was quite helpful because everybody felt they just had to up their game a little bit because there were some visitors there and people from different companies.
  • Remember practicalities like wifi and food!
And finally to ensure the event runs smoothly, Pinches tip for other is not to underestimate the importance of a strong wifi connection and good food.

Think of how much wifi you need and then double itStephen Pinches
"Think of how much wifi you need and then double it. The biggest single thing that goes wrong in hack days is connectivity."

This was not a problem for the FT due to careful planning. They also ensured good food, avoiding the "cliché of developers and pizza and beer" and opted for full waiter service."

"It was expensive to do but it made everybody feel a little more positive about the company and we kind of stamped our own culture on the hack day rather than just doing what everyone else does."

He advised: "Think about your company and what your company stands for and try and build that into the hack day."

Journalism.co.uk also spoke to Pinches, Wu and Sinker for this podcast on hack day events.

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