Civic Innovations

Technology, Government Innovation, and Open Data

Practical Hackathons: Free is not Always Better

This is the first in what I hope will be a series of posts with practical advice for organizing and running hacking events, particularly those focused on building civic apps and using open government data.

These posts will lead up to, and (hopefully) follow a talk I’m giving at SWSWi in March discussing the outcome of two civic hackathons I helped organize in 2011 – one in Philadelphia and one in Baltimore.

One of the lessons I took away from my own experience in helping organizing these events (and participating in many others) is that “free” does not always mean “better.”

It’s a widely held belief that civic hacking events should be free of charge, to encourage wider participation and to make it as easy as possible for people to join an event. There is some logic to this belief, and in some cases making an event free to attend is the best approach.

However, there are some cases where I believe charging people to participate in a civic hacking event can increase turnout.

In making this contention, I draw on the experience I had with a civic hacking event I helped organize last Summer. The event was part of a larger BarCamp focused on innovation in journalism, and it seemed to have all the ingredients to draw a large and enthusiastic crowd of participants. A healthy number of people registered to attend, and expectations were for a big crowd of people at the hackathon.

On the day of the event, however, turnout was very light – only a handful of people showed up to the hackathon, and only one project was worked on over the course of the day. (As an aside, I should say that the group that attended was packed with talent and the project they worked on was pretty cool – but that’s a story for another post.)

Apps for SEPTA
Apps for SEPTA in Philadelphia

Civic hackathons are flash points that bring together members of a local (or regional) developer community to rally around open data and civic apps. As they are meant to help build the civic hacking community, the number of participants in these events is a key measure of their success. By this measure, the event I am describing was not as successful as I and the other organizers had hoped.

Looking back on this example, I started to believe that one of the reasons we had so many people register to attend and so few actually make it to the event was because there was no cost to blowing it off. Prospective participants may not have viewed their registration as having any value because we hadn’t conveyed it to them with the appropriate signals – i.e., a price for participating.

As a way of testing this theory, for another hackathon I helped organize later in the year in the same city I decided to limit the number of registations available and to charge a small fee ($10 per participant) for signing up. This was meant to convey to prospective participants that their registration had value, and that by signing up they would be taking a seat in a finite supply – their participation was, in effect, crowding out someone else who might want to attend.

Charging people to attend civic hacking events (where open government data is used) can be tricky. I had several people who were thinking about attending this event question the motives of organizers, or flat out tell me that they wouldn’t come. But in the end, we had a sell out crowd for the event, and almost every single registrant showed up.

It’s interesting (and gratifying) to see other hackathon organizers come to a similar realization.

A hundred people registered to the event, and in the end around 40 hackers showed up for the event. I did not expect such a large difference, I think it’s due to the fact that the event was free of charge, a lot of people registered and never showed up later.

[For the next event, we] decided that tickets would be €10, not to make money from it, but to make sure that people registering were people really willing to come. In the end, around 140 hackers showed up. I think our strategy worked fine.

Though it may seem counterintuitive, sometimes limiting the the number of seats available and charging a fee may increase turnout at a hacking event. This isn’t always the case, and there are some very specific instances where this approach is probably not a good fit.

Sending the right signals to prospective participants at a hackathon that their participation is important and has real value can help make these events a success.

5 responses to “Practical Hackathons: Free is not Always Better”

  1. Having run into this a few times myself I think you are absolutely right. I’ve also found that the level of focus and dedication to results at the hackathon itself correlates to the price as well, and far more than other motivators. I’ve facilitated hackathons with thousands of dollars in prizes but free entry that had less dedication and drive from participants in Startup Weekend events with $100 tickets and not much in the way of prizes.

    Predictably Irrational has some great insights on this. Free is a weird thing. By not engaging our “is this worth it” value exchange models we tend to jump on free things, even those we don’t want at all. Even further with free it’s all upside. If I go to a free event and do nothing all day I perceive this as a great deal, even though it cost me a day.

    On the other hand once our economic value exchange is engaged; i.e. once we start asking is this worth the $10, we think about getting our moneys worth at the event as well. We say “I paid $10 I need to get that value back” and thus we need to fully engage or lose our money.

    Kav Latiolais

  2. Kav – great points.

    Thanks for mentioning the prize angle as well. I’ve also been a part of some events with relatively meager prize money, but huge dedication by participants and great outcomes.

    Price to participate is indeed a weird thing. My current thinking it needs to be low enough so as not to turn anyone off, but large enough for them to want to get their money’d worth by showing up at the event.

    If I can get them in the door to the event, I know I can get them excited about building and creating something.

  3. This is easy, you spend the money on food =]

    Hackers need pizza, caffeine, and water, and will gladly pay $10 if it means someone will acquire them

  4. […] are those that disagree with the philosophy that getting an optimal number of people to a hackathon is critical to its success. As long as you get some civicly minded people together to work on some projects, […]

  5. […] far surpassed last year – a testament to the growing interest in open data in Philly, and new strategies for attracting an optimal number of hackathon […]

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About Me

I am the former Chief Data Officer for the City of Philadelphia. I also served as Director of Government Relations at Code for America, and as Director of the State of Delaware’s Government Information Center. For about six years, I served in the General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Services (TTS), and helped pioneer their work with state and local governments. I also led platform evangelism efforts for TTS’ cloud platform, which supports over 30 critical federal agency systems.

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