Issue-Oriented Hackathons

How do hackathons work as design events, and what kinds of publics and action do hackathons actually enable?


Hackathons have become a cultural phenomenon of sorts – at least once a month there seems to be another one happening. Some of these are focused on a specific technology or platform (such as javascript or mobile hackathons), but increasingly they are what we call issue-oriented hackathons: events at which groups of people come together to address socially-oriented “challenges” through the development technical interventions, usually software, sometimes hardware.

From 2012 through 2015 we conducted ethnographic and design research on issue-oriented hackathons, taking on roles as both critical observers and reflective participants. We were particularly interested in so-called civic hackathons and hackathons related to food and food systems.

In addition to studying how issue-oriented hackathons might contribute to the articulation of issues and the formation of publics, we were also interested in probing the existing and possible relationships between hackathons and design. Are hackathons a site of design? A mode of design? Or something altogether different?

One possibility is to consider hackathons as a mode of ad-hoc design: a design practice that is equally intentional and contingent. This ad-hoc design serves two purposes. First it enables a dynamic process of invention, distributed across events, and second, it facilitates experimentation in orienting people and resources toward issues.

This research provided useful insight into new modes of collective civic action and design, while also illuminating the rhetorics and limitations of hackathons as sites and practices of innovation and civics.

Related Publications
Lodato, T. J., & DiSalvo, C. (2016). Issue-Oriented Hackathons as Material Participation. New Media and Society, 18(4), 539-557.

DiSalvo, C., Gregg, M., & Lodato, T. (2014). Building Belonging. interactions, 21(4), 58-61.

Gregg, M., & DiSalvo, C. (2013). The Trouble with White Hats. The New Inquiry.