The Great Hackathon Fail

Hackathons are a cool idea: a host/sponsor organization mobilizes a group of developers (from designers to code monkeys to software architects) encouraging creation and collaboration. In the end, the host/sponsor organization purchases the best developer-created solution – and there are no losers.

Instead, the other techie creatives walk away with a day (or two or three) of learning, interaction, and creation (and usually free pizza) under their belts, not to mention ownership of all those original ideas they came up with during the event.


So when Teralogix announced their 24-hour STL Hackathon event, the programming community was into the idea. The event promised unique networking opportunities, free food, and a free iPad 3 for all attendees at the end of the event. The winner would receive $20,000.

Not a bad deal, right? Sounds interesting, sure.
Until prospective “hackers” read the fine print…

The Devil in the Details

Bloggers caught wind of the terms and conditions and a social media storm began to brew.

Why do I have to sign a terms and condition waiver?
All participants will have to sign a terms and conditions waiver because the winning team(s) idea and intellectual property (IP) will become property of Teralogix. Only the winner or winning team will assign IP rights to new company. Teralogix reserves the right to select one or more winners.

Upon further examination, it was revealed that the $20,000 went to seed the winning idea and multiple winners could be chosen. Thus, the hosting company could potentially confiscate ALL intellectual property created at the event. Plus, the winner’s role in the further development and implementation of their winning idea was unclear.

Much of the outraged dev community felt exploited. Who, in their right mind, would work 24 hours straight crafting an idea, only to turn it over and walk away?

The answer: no one. Due to “unforeseen issues,” the STL Hackathon event was cancelled.

Though the exact “unforeseen issues” are still unclear, the cancellation speaks to the backlash from a resisting development community.

The True Hackathon Spirit

If you’re asking intelligent and creative people to essentially donate their time and energy to your organization, the event must produce a win-win outcome. The host organization must respect the intellectual property rights of the developer. The developer should both approach the event and exit the event feeling their objective was to create something (an app, software, an interface, etc) that they have control over, and can use to generate their own revenue, whether with or without the host organization’s backing.

When run correctly, a hackathon is crowdsourcing at its finest: an organization seeks to engage the local community of tech creatives, and in the end, everyone wins.

The end result needs to be of personal benefit to the developer, whether time is committed altruistically (perhaps to benefit a non-profit organization), or with the intention of revenue generation (as with a for-profit corporation-hosted event).

Creating Opportunities

A beneficial hackathon should be treated like an economic development opportunity – a space to encourage an entrepreneurial spirit in a specific community. The active participation of the developers cannot be expected and cannot result in one-sided benefits. The host company has a need for creative talent, so that talent must be incentivized, provided with resources, and rewarded for superior ideas. In turn, the developer’s time, energy, creativity, and skill set should be respected and intellectual property rights should be retained as well.

As the Milwaukee Data Initiative continues to promote the selection and building of information systems that are easily expanded through application programming interfaces (APIs), we’re going to see a lot more hackathons here in Wisconsin. With open data on Milwaukee’s horizon, developers and organizations will encourage the proliferation of hackathons, especially with organizations that capture and manage interesting information in both the private and public sectors.

We should encourage Milwaukee hackathon events that benefit everyone, propagate ideas, and encourage collaboration and respect – those that foster economic development in our communities. Now that’s the spirit behind a successful hackathon.

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