Running a virtual hackathon

by Joseph K. Clark

The pandemic has made it almost impossible for organizations to run in-person hackathon events, where developers can participate in teams on an idea, eat pizza and drink beer. In July, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) ran its first virtual hackathon, Hack2Work, over three days and was staged on a Microsoft Teams collaboration platform supported by MongoDB. Discussing how the hackathon was set up and run, Jacqui Leggetter, head of integration at DWP Digital, said that previous events were hosted in DWP digital hubs, bringing together teams of developers. But because of the pandemic, this hackathon event needed to be operated remotely.

“Our first online hackathon opened up an opportunity to people who weren’t free to travel,” she said. “Participants came from all corners of the UK and globally.” Some participants were from India and the US. Among the challenges of running a virtual hackathon event was maneuvering people into different rooms, keeping them interested, and distributing “swag” bags. Discussing the preparations, Leggetter added: “We looked at what kind of platform we needed, studio capabilities, and opening up the event to supplier partners and the wider world.”

DWP worked with MongoDB to provide the platform for the hackathon. The idea was to have a platform that provided interactivity for the hackathon teams developing code remotely, said Leggetter, and the ability to consume bite-sized chunks of content relevant to the problem the unit was solving. In the opening presentation, the developers heard about the effects of Covid-19, job losses, and the impact on Universal Credit customers. “We wanted them to think about the problem we are trying to solve, which is about recovering from the pandemic,” she said.

virtual hackathon

TalkTalk showed a video about its Kickstart program funded by the DWP and created new job placements for 16 to 24-year-olds on Universal Credit. This overview was followed by presentations from work coaches, who talked about their challenges in helping people get back to work. This was followed by a series of “lightning talks,” said Leggetter, which included national and local policies discussions. Along with these lightning talks, DWP’s innovation lab spoke about unconstrained innovation and what Leggetter described as “the art of the possible”. She added that each lightning talk was run twice and now sits on DWP’s content hub.

Developer teams were formed around a particular hack, each with its own virtual team space. Leggetter said the event brought people, some strangers, together as virtual developer teams that worked on a hack for three days. “There was a lot of diversity of teams, and everyone upped their game,” she added. Reflecting on the ideas created over the three days, Leggetter said: “The quality of the entries blew me away. Everyone was working remotely alongside people they’d never met (virtually) until the first day of the hack. Yet, they still came up with incredible ideas and developed them to an impressive standard.”

Out of 24 possible ideas, the teams in the hackathon worked on 11 different problems to create coding hacks for. The 11 units comprised 109 participants, DWP staff, and digital specialists from organizations including GDS, the NHS, CreatorSphere, Solidatus, and sponsors MongoDB, ScottLogic, Opencast, Kong, Red Hat, and IBM. Leggetter said the teams benefited from the diversity of thinking. “The teams were not heavily loaded with engineers or business analysts,” she said. “They had a good mix of skills and a good balance of delivery managers, engineers, and work coaches.” “Every team had at least one work coach,” said Leggetter, “which enabled them to home in on the problem statement.”

The developers who took part in the hackathon also had access to several DWP and open application programming interfaces (APIs). For instance, a couple of APIs provided access to citizen test data. For Leggetter, APIs challenged the standard approach to problem-solving and featured heavily in the hacks submitted. For example, she said, developers needed to consider where they would go, in terms of APIs, to get the information that tells whether a job vacancy is within three miles of a postcode. This may require using data from Transport for Greater Manchester or Ordnance Survey.

OThe application matches jobseekers to the opportunities that are relevant and local to them. Ne of the winning ideas, RouteToWork, uses APIs to tie together functionality from various government services, such as the National Careers Service, and data accessed using the Office for National Statistics’ APIs. RouteToWork was built using the gov. uk prototyping kit, Nunjucks was used as a template, and it was written in JavaScript and HTML with an Express.js server back-end.

Leggetter said she was amazed by the “absolutely amazing quality of hacking”. Whether any hackathon projects are likely to be rolled out, she told DWP plans to do some follow-up analysis work on the ideas submitted. “We will want to do a bit more feasibility work, but we’re not ruling out anything,” she added. Thanks to how the problem areas for the hackathon submissions were defined, the submitted code is granular, giving DWP more opportunities to incorporate them into other projects.

Virtual and hybrid approaches

With many organizations looking at a hybrid approach to work, where people spend some of their time at home, the Hack2Work hackathon shines a light on the effectiveness of virtual team collaboration. Like an in-person hackathon, participants could share free pizzas – albeit over a video link. They also received swag bags sent in the post ahead of the event. Andrew Morgan, the staff developer advocate at MongoDB, says he misses actual hackathon events where people are locked in a room and share pizzas. “I think more about the challenge going forward,” he said.

For an event lasting three days, Morgan said it is possible to have people who do not know each other collaborate virtually. The challenge is when part of the team is in the office while some team members work from home. In Morgan’s experience, a remote person can be brought into a team and work effectively if people have an existing work relationship. But this is far harder if remote workers are part of an office-based staff team they have never met.

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