How To Run A Hackathon During A Pandemic
The story behind the COVID-19 Global Hackathon 2.0: Social & Mental Health
Organizing a hackathon is similar to being a chef: you can draw from many ingredients — participants, mentors, and sponsors—to create a plate. However, only experience can teach you which ingredients and techniques create a great dish.
Unfortunately, COVID has completely changed what it takes to organize a great hackathon, even if you have the benefit of past experience. The ingredients and equipment of in-person hackathons are out of stock: social connection doesn’t come naturally online, and the feeling of being part of something awesome is now harder to replicate.
We encountered these problems when we started planning the COVID-19 Global Hackathon 2.0: Social & Mental Health for the COVID Technology Task Force. Our organizing team, composed of about 20 volunteers in collaboration with Quaranteam, connected 80+ mentors to 600+ participants who submitted 100+ projects from July 3rd to July 12th.
If you’re planning a remote hackathon, think of this article as inspiration rather than dogma. Every hackathon has a unique set of needs, challenges, and constraints that you will need to address in your own way.
The Recipe (tldr)
- Give people a reason to care about your hackathon.
- Remember who your participants are.
- Define and track your most important metrics.
- Decide on sensible dates and a mid-event timeline.
- Establish an online presence.
- Create a Slack workspace or Discord server.
- Create an internal organization system.
- Onboard partners, and mentors that will make your hackathon desirable and great.
- Create a keynote event that sets the tone for the hackathon.
- Create workshops and talks that help participants during the hackathon.
Are you stocked up on key ingredients?
- Give people a reason to care about your hackathon.
Your hackathon needs to have an obvious purpose in order to attract organizations, companies, and — of course — participants. What are you cooking?
What we did: We think that the tech industry isn’t paying enough attention to downstream consequences of COVID, especially the mental health challenges around social isolation. Our call to action was to rally hackers around the severity of the situation and the need to help.
Our outbound emails to nonprofits, tech companies, and tech-oriented newsletters looked like this:
COVID-19 is not just going to go away. There’s reason to be very worried for what’s next:
- Adults are three times more likely to report that they’re in severe psychological distress. 
- 94% of COVID-19 deaths are of people aged 45+ in New York 
- People of color are being killed by COVID-19 at twice the rate of others 
- Most states are poised to lift moratoriums on evictions even though unemployment is perhaps 20% 
Now that we all know what living in the COVID-19 era is like and how differently it affects others, we, hand-in-hand with our collaborators at <list of collaborators> are pleased to invite you and your colleagues to our hackathon to find a way out.
Running through July 12, you will be able to consult with our panel of experts from social and health nonprofits during scheduled open office hours. Public companies and startups with expertise in software programming, machine learning, design, and hardware will also be on call to help you build your solutions.
2. Remember who your participants are.
You need to have a clear idea of who will participate in your hackathon. You must consider their experience level and motivation, much like a chef must consider food allergies and tolerance to spiciness.
What we did: We opened our hackathon to anyone and everyone — basically, you just needed an Internet connection and some free time, whether over the weekend or during the week. This created a unique challenge: we had participants who didn’t have a team, didn’t have an idea, and didn’t even have any experience in tech, let alone in hackathons.
This segment of participants inspired the creation of the Hackathon Field Guide, courtesy of our friends at Quaranteam. It also led us to schedule the hackathon over the course of a week. The event was bookended by weekends, instead of a single weekend, so that people with jobs could participate and still have time for other things in life.
3. Define and track your most important metrics.
Metrics allow you and your organizing team to understand how well you’re doing at any point. This could include the number of cloud sponsors, number of hackathon participants registered, number of mentors onboarded, etc. Without numbers, you don’t know how close you are to achieving your most important goals.
What we did: Because we were a zero-budget hackathon, our main KPIs were simply the number of participants in Slack and the number of mentors in Slack. We tracked these numbers in a table every day, which really helped us put into perspective how close we were to creating an event with hundreds of active participants.
4. Decide on sensible dates and a mid-event timeline.
You need to plan sufficiently far enough in advance so that you can onboard participants, partners, and mentors, but not so far in advance that the hackathon seems like a distant reality. We would recommend planning a month minimum in advance.
What we did: Although we started laying the groundwork for CGH 2.0 in April, most of our meetings and onboardings happened in mid-to-late June. This ended up being a massive source of stress, as we sought to balance hackathon planning with the onboarding of mentors and partners.
5. Establish an online presence.
Where do your participants register? How do they get into the event? Where do they submit their projects once complete? Your online presence should make answering these questions really simple.
What we did: We used Devpost to host our hackathon. Their user interface creates a convenient structure for you to think about many aspects of planning:
- The home page
- The list of (pre)registered participants
- Sponsor logos
- Links to important things, like the Slack workspace, calendar of events (more on that later), rules and code of conduct, the list of resources, the list of mentors, the list of project ideas, etc
- Graphics and branding (shout out to Canva for helping us choose a beautiful visual language)
Devpost is an invaluable piece of infrastructure for anyone running a hackathon, and I honestly don’t know how we would’ve run this event without them.
6. Create a Slack workspace or Discord server for the hackathon.
While many can debate on the merits of Slack versus Discord, it is incredibly important for your hackathon to have some place for real-time communication and collaboration. Pick one and run with it.
What we did: We created a Slack workspace. Keeping in mind that many may be participating in their first-ever hackathon, and on top of that may be using Slack for the very first time, we focused on ensuring that the workspace was ridiculously easy to use:
- We sorted channels using numbers (e.g., the very first channel in Slack’s channel list was called #0-help).
- We created an introduction message that had a “todo” list for anyone who just joined the Slack workspace.
- We created as few channels as possible.
- We put important links in the description of every official channel.
- We had a Zapier integration that connected every idea submitted to the idea board to a channel in Slack. This allowed teams to form and collaborate in real time.
7. Create an internal organization system.
To minimize confusion, you need a single source of truth for all things your organizers need to know. It is worth creating a Notion workspace or a master Google Doc with the most important links, information, etc. that your organizing team will need before, during, and after the event.
What we did: We started with a Notion workspace that contained things like:
- Key metrics
- Notes from daily standups
- A table listing all potential marketing opportunities
- A table listing all partners and mentors, and their onboarding state
When Quaranteam joined the team to operationalize the event, they created an additional system based on Google Docs that contained:
- Org structure and responsibilities
- TODOs for every team member
- Outgoing communications to mentors and participants
- A master table of important links
8. Onboard partners and mentors that will make your hackathon desirable and great.
Hackathon participants want to know that, if they have a question, they will get an answer. This will also help them decide whether your hackathon is worth registering for.
What we did: We mapped out what areas of expertise we needed on hand during the hackathon, and sought introductions for each area of expertise that we lacked. When we successfully onboarded a mentor or organization, we added their logo to the hackathon home page. To keep track of who we had spoken to and who we hadn’t, we created a lightweight CRM (basically, a table in Notion) tracking the state of each mentor and/or organization. We scheduled onboarding meetings with each mentor using Calendly.
During each onboarding meeting, we followed a general call flow:
- Introduce ourselves and the hackathon
- To ensure there’s two-way alignment, ask the mentor what excites them about being part of this event
- Ask them to click a Slack invite link, and add themselves to the mentor board
- If the mentor can provide a useful perspective to participants during the hackathon via a talk, offer them an opportunity to speak at a workshop or the keynote
- If applicable, ask for permission to use their name and logo in public materials
9. Create a keynote event that sets the tone for the hackathon.
Having an opening keynote is critical to creating the momentum and inspiration needed to start your event. Without an official, visible start to your event, it will be difficult for participants to put names and faces to the organizers and mentors of the hackathon, as well as understand the key ideas you want participants to consider.
What we did: In pursuit of “show, don’t tell,” we created a speaker roster to highlight people creating companies helping people effectively and at scale.
- We invited Justin Kan to interview Glen Moriarty of 7 Cups. Justin has written extensively online about the importance of self-care and mental health, and Glen has created one of the largest active listening and therapy platforms in the world.
- We invited Dennis Crowley of Foursquare. His company has new APIs and datasets that help people building location-based apps.
- We invited Misa Beach, Radu Spineau, and Deevee Kashi to discuss HelpWithCovid.com. With the blessing of Sam Altman, this started as a CRUD app that turned into a massive volunteer network where anyone could list an idea to help save the world, and get talented volunteers in days. This helped participants discover another way to recruit volunteers for their projects.
- We invited the co-founders of Quaranteam. This talented team initially created a profile frame reminding people to stay at home. This was used by over 20 million people, which helped save an enumerable number of lives, and led to the birth of an incredibly talented volunteer network. We wanted to show how little things can turn into big things.
- We also included ShockTalk (a hackathon participant) in the keynote in order to demonstrate how all it takes is a unique idea and a passionate early team to bring a vision to life.
This unique blend of speakers helped participants understand who supported this hackathon as well as what it was about.
10. Create workshops and talks that help participants during the hackathon.
Participants will face similar problems during the event, such as idea finding, team building, engineering, and getting feedback. We highly recommend asking mentors to organize talks and workshops to help participants solve problems before they have them.
What we did: We created a public calendar of events that included:
- The keynote and closing ceremony events
- Participant icebreakers, so that teams could recruit
- Workshops, so participants could learn from and meet mentors
- Happy hours, so participants could socialize
We kept a document dedicated to drafts of outgoing communications to announce events as they were added to the calendar. Every communication was sent to a default #announcements channel in Slack, as well as to participants’ email inboxes using DevPost’s Update feature.
Bonus: high-level tips and advice
Running a hackathon is one of the most exhilarating and gratifying experiences one could take on, but it can also be extremely stressful and draining. Here are some useful tips to keep in mind before you embark on this journey:
- Block out your schedule to take walks/exercise/breaks. Running an online hackathon causes major screen addiction, which is only exacerbated by endless Zoom meetings that numb you. Building in periods of disconnection is vital for you and your team’s sanity. A great suggestion given to us by Marko Russivier of Global Hack is to have every member of the team block out 1 hour to take a walk every day during the event.
- Elevate participants and mentors. A successful hackathon gets mentors and participants excited about the future. If you give participants and mentors a platform to do the things they love, your hackathon will be unforgettable.
- Delegate responsibilities in advance. A hackathon can quickly devolve into chaos, making everything seem broken all the time. Assigning team members roles and responsibilities in advance — and then entrusting them to deliver — is a great way to maintain order in the middle of chaos.
- Have daily standups before and during the event. This allows the entire team to synchronize on the most important challenges of the day, and delegate tasks.
- During the event, create long-running video chats for team members to collaborate. It can be helpful to stay present with your organizers by having topical video chats — aka workstreams — running that allow team members to focus on specific tasks (such as writing copy or creating graphics).
We had the privilege of helping hundreds of people use their superpowers for good. While the hackathon spawned several projects we’re excited about supporting after the event, it’s hard to measure the overall impact of that week. Many people strengthened their coding, marketing, and strategy muscles in the name of social good. The effects of that many not be obvious for months and years to come.
If you are able to replicate this in your hackathon, you’re able to play a part in making the world a more equitable and positive place using tech.
Thanks to Jonathan Cain, John Borthwick, Nicole Patrice, Mei Lin Fung, Misa Beach, Adam Heerwagen, and Augie Rakow for providing feedback on drafts of this post.