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Running a virtual hackathon

DWP Digital recently organised a virtual hackathon. We find out how it went, and the key takeaways

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: The fears and benefits of virtualising reality

The pandemic has made it almost impossible for organisations to run in-person hackathon events, where groups of developers can work together on an idea, eat pizza and drink beer.

Earlier in July, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) ran its first virtual hackathon, Hack2Work, which ran 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 previous events were hosted in DWP Digital hubs, which brought 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.” In fact, some participants were from India and the US.

The challenges of running a virtual hackathon event included thinking about how to manoeuvre people into different rooms, keep them interested and distribute “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 who were developing code remotely, said Leggetter, and the ability to consume bite-sized chunks of content that were relevant to the problem the team was tasked with solving.

“We wanted them to think about the problem we are trying to solve, which is about recovering from the pandemic,” she said.

In the opening presentation, the developers heard about the effects of Covid-19, job losses and the impact on Universal Credit customers.

This overview was followed by presentations from work coaches, who talked about their challenges in helping people get back to work. These were then followed by a series of “lightning talks”, said Leggetter, which included discussions on national and local policies.

“Our first online hackathon opened up an opportunity to people who weren’t free to travel. Participants came from all corners of the UK, and globally”
Jacqui Leggetter, DWP Digital

TalkTalk showed a video about its Kickstart programme, which was funded by the DWP and created new job placements for 16- to 24-year-olds on Universal Credit. Along with these lightning talks, representatives from DWP’s innovation lab spoke about unconstrained innovation and what Leggetter described as “the art of the possible”. Each lightning talk was run twice and now sits on DWP’s content hub, she added.

Developer teams were then formed around a particular hack, with each having its own virtual team space. Leggetter said the event was able to bring people, some of them complete strangers, together in 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.

Impressive ideas

Reflecting on the ideas that were created over the three days, Leggetter said: “I was blown away by the quality of the entries. Everyone was working remotely alongside people they’d never met until the first day of the hack, and yet they still came up with incredible ideas and developed them to a really impressive standard.”

Out of 24 possible ideas, the teams that took part in the hackathon worked on 11 different problems to create coding hacks for. “Every team had at least one work coach,” said Leggetter, “which really enabled them to home in on the problem statement.”

The 11 teams, made up of 109 participants, comprised DWP staff and digital specialists from organisations including the Government Digital Service, the NHS, CreatorSphere, Solidatus and sponsors MongoDB, ScottLogic, Opencast, Kong, Red Hat and IBM. 

Leggetter said the teams benefited from 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.”

“I was blown away by the quality of the entries. Everyone was working remotely ... and yet they still came up with incredible ideas and developed them to a really impressive standard”
Jacqui Leggetter, DWP Digital

The developers who took part in the hackathon also had access to a number of DWP and open application programming interfaces (APIs). For instance, a couple of APIs provided access to citizen test data. For Leggetter, the use of APIs challenged the normal 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 held by Transport for Greater Manchester or Ordnance Survey.

In fact, one 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. The application matches jobseekers to the opportunities that are relevant and local to them.

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 impressed by the “absolutely amazing quality of hacking”. As to whether any of the hackathon projects are likely to be rolled out, she said 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 the way the problem areas for the hackathon submissions were defined, the submitted code is granular, which gives DWP more opportunities to incorporate them into other projects. 

Virtual and hybrid approaches

Like an in-person hackathon, participants were able to share free pizzas – albeit over a video link. They also received swag bags, sent in the post ahead of the event.

With many organisations 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.

Andrew Morgan, staff developer advocate at MongoDB, said he misses real hackathon events where people are together 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 was possible to have people who do not know each other to collaborate virtually. The challenge is what happens when part of the team is in the office, while some team members work from home.

In Morgan’s experience, if people have an existing work relationship, a remote person can be brought into a team and work effectively. But this is far harder if remote workers are part of a team comprising office-based staff they have never met.

Read more about developer innovation

  • Want to host a hackathon? Here are some ideas on what a company can do to host an event that solves problems and re-energises the organisation. Just don’t forget the food.
  • Several firms banded together to run a virtual female-only hackathon to encourage data analysts to use Covid-19 data to solve pandemic-related problems.

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