How to host a 24-hour hackathon – and survive
Tuomas Jalamo

How to host a 24-hour hackathon – and survive

What does it take to organise a 24-hour hackathon? Having just hosted Suunto Movehack, we wanted to share what we learned in the process.

What does it take to organise a 24-hour hackathon? Quite a lot, it turns out. Having just hosted Suunto Movehack, we wanted to share what we learned in the process.

Ask any event organiser what the most difficult part of their job is, and they will probably tell you this: keeping track of a lot of things at once. Even in relatively small events, stuff tends to add up quite fast.

In Spring 2019, we teamed up with our client Suunto and University of Turku IT student organisations Asteriski&Digit to organise Movehack, a 24-hour hackathon event. The idea was to split the participants into groups, give them Suunto's movement-tracking Movesense sensors and let them build a demo – the more creative the better.As a company, we had quite a lot of previous experience in organising evening events, ie. smaller-scale student workshops and IxDA nights. Still, a hackathon that takes place overnight and well into the next day proved to be a whole different kind of beast.

Suunto's Movesense is a small sensor that can track almost any kind of movement and can be attached to pretty much any surface. The ways in which it can be utilised are practically endless – that's why it was a perfect fit for a hackathon.

The event as a whole was a success. The demos produced were nothing short of brilliant, and the participants were extremely happy with how everything was organised. In hindsight, there were a lot of aspects we did right, but also things we overlooked and could have prepared for better. The purpose of this article is to tap a bit into both.

1. Location means everything

Securing a good location for any event can be a challenge. We soon realised that a hackathon has a set of requirements that automatically excludes most venues. It needs to be big enough, yet cost-effective. It must be available and easy to access even at night. It should be easy enough to organise the catering, yet the participants should be allowed to bring their own snacks as well. It needs to be equipped with a heavy-duty wi-fi connection. It needs to look good and give a good impression. And the list goes on.

Make finding a suitable location your priority number one, preferably even before setting the dates.

We ran into problems after realising that there were not too many locations in Turku that could realistically tick all these boxes. Additionally, the most suitable one was already booked because a reality show was just being filmed there.

The hackathon crowd during the tutorial session.

Luckily, our Turku office is a big, well-equipped space located right in the city centre, so we eventually opted for that and it turned out just perfect. However, had the scale of the event been any bigger, we would have been in serious trouble. So the lesson learned was: make finding a suitable location your priority number one, preferably even before setting the dates.

2. The theme must fit your audience and your marketing message

Selecting a good theme for your hackathon is tricky business. On one hand, if the theme is too generic it might not be interesting enough for the audience to invest much time and effort into it. On the other hand, if your theme is too specific or the technology options too esoteric, it is likely to drive people away. Moreover, the event should also be approached as a marketing effort: it needs to reflect the hosting organisation's brand in some relevant way.

In our case, Movesense seemed a thematically sound choice because it represented both our long-running relationship with Suunto and a user-centric approach to design and development. However, people seemed to find it intimidating at first. Not many of our target audience had previous experience with Android development, let alone movement sensors.

This is the poster we created for the event to give it an extra spark of personality in the marketing.

When we opened the registration, there were way less immediate responses than we expected. We increased marketing efforts in both our own and student organisations' channels and emphasised the fact that people of various backgrounds (including designers) and skill levels were welcome. This did the trick. However, it was a healthy reminder that you need to leave enough time between opening the registration and the actual event, so there's a chance to make adjustments to your approach if need be.

3. Side-activities are fun and necessary

No team is able to work efficiently for 24 hours straight. Side-activities that offer the teams a chance to take breaks and relax a bit are vital. Our approach to this was twofold: we asked Ismo Uusi-Uola, a personal trainer from Fysic, to guide the participants through a pre-hackathon workout routine that was both light-hearted and practical. And of course, we knew that our audience consisted of geeks like ourselves, so we provided them with separate spaces for video games and board games.

Side-activities that offer the teams a chance to take breaks and relax a bit are vital.

The soundtrack of the night consisted mostly of minimal techno – with no distracting vocals, it's the perfect kind of music for finding the flow and staying focused.If we were to do one thing differently though, we would not try and force any kind of schedule to these activities. Our initial idea was to have board game tournaments running at certain times. This idea backfired because the teams could not foresee when they would be having their breaks.

4. Where's the bathroom again?

Long events force you to put a heavy emphasis on practical stuff: the basic necessities need to be easily available and taken care of. It sounds obvious, but it's amazing how easy it is to forget to worry about stuff like refilling toilet paper when you're too busy with thinking about the cool stuff.

Putting yourself in the position of a guest is extremely important when making a checklist of what needs to be taken into account.

Putting yourself in the position of a guest is extremely important when making a checklist of what needs to be taken into account: how will the participants exit & re-enter the venue? What if someone wants to take a nap? Are there areas where the participants are not allowed to enter? Is the lighting optimal for a long coding session? Quite early on, we created an extensive task list with Trello to make sure nothing would slip through the cracks.

The winning team posing with the judges and their shiny new Suunto Spartan Trainer Wrist HR watches.

But of course, there are always surprises. Unbeknownst to us, on the very same weekend that we were having our event, the air conditioning in our office would be shut down due to some maintenance work. Fortunately, after a few panicky phone calls, we got the issue sorted out. But for an hour or so, things were getting heated up. And not in a nice sunny afternoon kind of way.

Speaking of essentials: providing the participants with enough tasty food, snacks and drinks is absolutely vital for them to survive the ordeal. However, here's something we learned the hard way: hiring a catering company for the duration of the event may be somewhat costly, but boy you'll be happy you're not running around town carrying food for 30+ hungry people, including yourself. Because that's what we did.

5. Make sure it's worth their while... and yours, too!

Nothing feels cheaper than prizes that are of no value to your audience – a handshake and tote bag simply won't do.

Together with Suunto, we decided to give each member of the winning team a Suunto Spartan Trainer Wrist HR sports watch. Additionally, the members of the two highest-ranking teams got a Movesense developer kit to continue playing around with at home.Besides good karma, there are many ways that organising these events can boost your visibility as well. We hired a small video crew to shoot a short documentary about the hackathon and created a Youtube campaign around it. This was handy both in terms of spreading awareness about both our Suunto/university co-operation and the Taiste brand. Also, it will surely serve as excellent marketing material when the time comes to organise the next event.

Here's how the event looked like in action. Look at all those happy faces: 

Want to read more about our own experimentations with Movesense? Read our story about how our Software Developer Timo built an application for his Aikido sword.

Tuomas Jalamo

A Swiss Army knife of communications, marketing, project management and concept design. Also a musician, movie buff and game enthusiast.

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