5 reasons why journalists should take part in hackathons

Being geeky is something most journalists can’t boast. Especially if you work for a large media organization, chances are high you’ve never worked with developers and can’t tell a Mac terminal from Sublime Text editor. However, there’s a cheap way to change that and pick up new digital skills quickly: just start participating in hackathons.

Some background:A hackathon («hacker» + «marathon») is a coding event where you usually have two days to create a new digital (sometimes physical as well) product called a «hack» in a team. Hackathons can be based on a special API (application programming interface) and be sponsored by a particular company to get new ideas for potential products or new use cases. For example, BMW and Twitter might want to run a hackathon devoted to Twitter integration into BWM cars. Hackathons may also be devoted to a special topic like mobile content, open data or health. To find hackathons that were developed with journalists in mind, visit Knight-Mozilla OpenNews website.

Up to now, I’ve taken part in two hackathons – one in Berlin and one in Hamburg, won prizes at both, watched and reported from another one in Moscow and organized Open Data Hack Day myself, with a second edition coming to Munich this October. So at this point it’s high time to share my experience. If your are a journalist, here’re 5 reasons why you should participate in hackathons even without prior coding experience.

Open Data Hack Day in Offenburg, Germany

Open Data Hack Day in Offenburg, Germany

1. You get out of your comfort zone and try out new roles.
Think nobody needs journalists at hackathons? Think again. The point is: coders need people who can explain and communicate crazy things they just did. Since journalists do that professionally on a daily basis – talking to experts, working on beats, reading specialized publications to get more insight into a certain topic and finally bringing it all home to their audiences in a simple and clear manner, they can be extremely useful at hackathons.

Although writing stories, documenting your steps and delivering information in an efficient way (you usually have just a couple of minutes to present your hack) is definitely something worth learning, there’s more to it than that. For example, at the Hamburg hackathon, we were a team of five and we all just got to learn each other on the spot. We were: me (journalist), a data scientist / programmer, a statistician and two front-end developers. It came out that each of the techie guys could really do a lot, but they needed to know what exactly they should be doing and how the final product should look and feel like. That’s exactly where journalists can come into play, developing a product vision and having an eye on what everyone is doing, a little bit of coordination might be useful as well.

In this Medium post “Hackathon-ing as a Non-Developer”, you can learn more about the ways a non-coder can be useful at a hackathon.

2. You learn about code – for free and just in two days.
Although you shouldn’t expect you’d become a star coder after attending a hackathon, you will definitely pick up a couple of things which may motivate you to learn more. You will also be able to learn the difference between front-end and back-end development – and if you ask your team-mates questions, there’re a lot more things you may be able to pick up.
3. You develop products you might be able to use at your media organization.

For example, when I took part in the Hamburg hackathon, I didn’t write a single line of code. What I did was developing a story behind our hack which eventually became a journalistic product everyone could understand, although it all started as a sophisticated predictive Twitter analysis by a young data scientist. I created this product with a certain Burda website in mind, on the one hand to practice creating products for specific target audiences and on the other hand to eventually be able to offer our hack for publication.

So basically, nothing prevents you from thinking in terms of your brand and your target group as long as the team agrees.
4. You learn to think like a founder and work under extreme time pressure

Apart from seeing product development from scratch in action, you will learn how to develop new ideas quickly and iterate when something doesn’t work out as it should. You shouldn’t think you will create a final polished product but rather a basic alpha version or just a prototype. That means, you will probably have to think how a final product will look like, develop a vision for that, and – an absolute must – think of a problem you are trying to solve with your product.

That basically means learning how start-ups work which will definitely be a huge advantage for your further professional development. Start-up culture is something media organizations should learn, and many of them like New York Times in the leaked Innovation Report have already acknowledged that.

5. You gain experience to run your own hackathon
… and concentrate on the topics interesting for your news organization. That’s why I have organized the first hackathon for Hubert Burda Media where I’m currently working. At the first Open Data Hack Day in June, we focused on creating data-driven journalistic visualization (data journalism). The second edition will take place on October 25-26 in Munich and will be focusing not only on data visualizations, but also on mobile content.

But before running these hack days myself, I learned a lot about organizational issues including the right timing and the right food by attending other hackathons. To learn more, read this how-to guide on open data hackathons. Here’re also some useful tips on how to throw a hackathon.

6. Bonus: You finally understand that coders and designers are nice guys
This was supposed to be a five-points list, but here’s a bonus. You will finally understand that coders and not just nerds who can express themselves in technical terms anyone can barely understand. Sometimes, it will be technical guys, not you who will tell you what’s the story behind the data (as some teams experienced at our journalistic Open Data Hack Day). That’s where journalists can learn a lot about data-driven mindset and new technical approaches to journalism.
So at this point, I’d like to make some more promotion for the Open Data Hack Day in Munich. If you are based somewhere nearby, don’t hesitate to sign up, it’s free and it won’t hurt :)

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3 comments for “5 reasons why journalists should take part in hackathons

  1. August 17, 2014 at 10:25 pm

    the how-to guide on open data hackathons is not accessible for guest user.

    Thank you

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