This post will answer the following questions: What is a 'Hackathon'? Who gets involved? And what is the value to the ecosystem?
What is a Hackathon?
'Hack' has a couple of meanings in popular usage. The common one means 'to illegitimately break into a system', and is frequently used in news reports with reference to 'phone hacking', 'hacked websites', and 'international hackers'.
'Hack' in 'Hackathon' means something quite different- it's the building of something very quickly from some available parts. These parts may be fixed data (perhaps in a spreadsheet), an API (a service that provides structured data), or even physical objects. The hack itself is usually a prototype of an idea- possibly working, sometimes just sketched. Hackathons tend to be playful, constructive, and driven by time pressure and competition.
Wikipedia pins the coining of the term 'Hackathon' to somewhere around 1999, but the format of this type of event goes back further, with probable origin around the early home computer days of the Demoscene - an internationally-spread group of teams coding beautiful visual effects for kudos and one-upmanship. Fuelling the Demoscene were gatherings (usually called 'parties') where the demo teams lined up next to each other to spend a night - sometimes a weekend - producing something special.
Today's hackathons very much carry that spirit. Creative people get together, often forming teams, to build something over a set period of time. There's usually a set theme or a selection of challenges to head for, and the event typically lasts one or two days. Judging and prizes are also a common feature.
Who gets involved?
Hacks tend to mostly pull coders, but they're much better events when designers, copywriters and other creatives attend.
From the other side, organisations can provide their data as the creative seed.
What is the value to the ecosystem?
These events give creatives the opportunity to find new peers; to gain experience with the latest technology; to foster entrepreneurship, innovation and collaborative skills.
The data providers have an opportunity to engage a group of strongly motivated creatives; to have their data used in unexpected, wonderful ways; to find ideas which bring public value and private meaning to previously latent information; and to explore new ways to commercialise or understand the power of their data.
These two groups also mutually benefit from the association- it helps lay a working foundation for future collaboration and - together - they can foster digital innovation to bear fruit in the longer term.