This post is a compilation of reflections I’ve had participating in a number of hack days and similar events over the last year.

My experience of these types events has been fostered over a number of years tinkering with and helping out with open source communities. In particular, I have fond memories helping out as a volunteer tester and developer with the One Laptop Per Child programme, and its subsequent software offshoot Sugar Labs.

To me, the terms unconference and hackday imply informality, mutual respect, community development and shared values. Throw a little bit of frugality in there too.

Tips for Everybody

Know your goals. If you are planning on putting on an event, take the time to think about who you are trying to bring together and why. A hackfest is going to bring technical folk. Talk to technical folk about the kinds of things that will be handy, useful and attractive at the event.

Talk to people. There are a number of people within New Zealand. One of the best agencies at this is the National Library of New Zealand. The culture and heritage sector’s National Digital Forum and its unconference segment are world-class.

Invite media – as well as unconventional media – to get involved. Many teams would love to have their work profiled. But don’t talk to project teams for too long. Geeks need flow.

Use social media tactfully. You will get better engagement from technical communities by investing in well-written blogs post than tweets. A small number of people will tweet your event heavily anyway.

Break out space. Have a few quiet meeting spaces available to be booked in fifteen minute increments. That will provide an outlet to people who are pretty chatty while balancing the need for quiet.

Reference: HackAKL by Tim McNamara. Copyright: Creative Commons Attribution licence.

Reference: HackAKL by Tim McNamara. Copyright: Creative Commons Attribution licence.


HackAKL, which took place on 24-25 May and positioned itself as ‘Auckland’s first civic hacking event’, was well run, well catered, well financed and well publicised. It was also one of the most disappointing events I’ve been involved with. The focus on competition and the lavish spending really began to upset me by the second day.

I loved the free coffee and scoffed my way through plenty of free food, but I kept thinking of the extra bus or two that could have been paid for by forgoing the consultant and marketing fees that would have gone into the event to make it happen.

The counter-argument to my position is likely to run something like, “It was a key event, it needed to be managed professionally”. HackAKL became the centrepiece of a new technology roll-out that included a brand-new API. Hundreds of people signed up to participate. And the stakes were high. And that is why I think that it might have been more sensible for the council to have run multiple small events, rather than one big one.

The technology roll-out did not run smoothly. The new API did not get released on time. The dummy data provided was inconsistent with the documentation. A number of good ideas could not get off the ground.

HackAKL included several invited speakers – including international keynotes via video conference – who were ignored by almost all of the delegates. This made me think that there was too much pushed into it.

One of the things that went relatively well though was the creation of stories and teams beforehand in the wiki. However, as many of the teams were participating as part of corporate groups, there wasn’t a large degree of information-sharing between groups before hand (at least from my limited vantage point).

Connecting people could have been a much stronger aim for the event. There are a few examples where facilitating network building could have been improved:

  • The mailing list was not approachable. I subscribed early and a person’s name never appeared in any of the emails. The event organisers were intentionally being anonymous.
  • If a council or government department is running an open data event; they should include members of the local open data community. New Zealand has an active group of public servants, hackers and industry members already – but that group didn’t receive official notification of the event.
  • The competition element really killed cooperation and communication between teams during the event

Overall, I wonder if a smaller event – or perhaps a series of much smaller events – would have felt more Kiwi. As the weekend progressed, I kept thinking of the massive posters, gorgeous website and thinking ‘this spend isn’t doing much for the people of Mangere who just want a cheaper bus fare’.

Mozilla Science Lab Global Sprint

Last month, one of the Mozilla Foundation’s newest initiatives, the Science Lab, held its first global sprint. The sprint involved two working days of activity in about 30 sites worldwide. Cities were hooked together via video conference. Project leaders handed projects over between cities. As you slept, people kept extending the work that you began.

The budget for this event was tiny. Venues were donated. Marketing material was produced on free and open source software.

In New Zealand, space was donated by two New Zealand companies – Catalyst IT in Auckland, and Dragonfly Data Science in Wellington. My time (which I used to help organise the Auckland site) was donated to the cause by my employer, the New Zealand eScience Infrastructure.

Although the scale was similar to HackAKL, several hundred participants over two days, participating in the sprint felt much more intimate and welcoming. At HackAKL, every team felt very isolated. Within the sprint, teams could work independently but they could also share.

Digital collaboration tools were extremely beneficial. Both video conferencing and IRC played vital and complementary roles.

Every time I joined the video conference, I was warmly welcomed by Alison Stringer in Wellington, Damien Irving in Melbourne and Kaitlin Thaney in New York. We were a small team in Auckland, but felt very much invited to participate in the worldwide project.

Reference: Mozilla Science Lab Global Sprint by Tim McNamara. Copyright: Creative Commons Attribution licence.

Reference: Mozilla Science Lab Global Sprint by Tim McNamara. Copyright: Creative Commons Attribution licence.


Coming back to home, the digital humanities community hold a lovely event annually called THATcamp. THATcamp – The Humanities And Technology camp – is where humanities students and scholars come together to explore how tech can assist them in their practice.

Digital humanists use computational tools such as natural language processing to conduct (meta)analyses of corpora. (Excuse the jargon!) These days, humanities scholars use computers to read lots of things and try to detect patterns that are impossible for humans to detect by themselves.

For THATcamp, there is no large pool of public funding for the event. There are a no large banners. Instead, there might be a website administered by someone in their spare time, a mailing list and a passion for collaboration. During the day-long event, people pick the schedule that they are interested in. And they talk. And they learn. And they might build.

Outcomes could be new partnerships, an understanding of issues faced by other projects, strengthening of relationships and building mutual respect with players such as a university’s IT support staff.

Wrapping Up

One of the things I’ve noticed is that there has been a strong tend towards corporatisation of the ‘unconference’. It’s cool to ‘hack’.

There once were unconferences, now there are hackday startups. Code for America is being spun out around the globe and I feel that Auckland suffered because of the insistence to follow a cookie cutter format. I understand the motivations – a Chief Executive is far more likely to want to sign off on an event that has a defined structure and is well-rehearsed.

However, building a competition drives teams away from each other and doesn’t enable two other key goals –  creative exploration and collaboration.

Tim McNamara connects researchers with supercomputers at the New Zealand e-Science Infrastructure. You can follow him on Twitter at @timclicks

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