A time limited event where teams build solutions on a predetermined theme
Jason Pearman
A hackathon is an intense (usually 24-72 hours long) and creative event during which participants are put into teams that build solutions related to a predetermined theme. Traditionally hackathons (and their cousins Appathons, Codefests, and Pitch Camps) result in new apps, software programs, or products, but are increasingly expanding into service design, data visualization, or problem and solution scoping. Practitioners are also exploring how hackathons can be used to connect between programmers and designers to knowledge domain experts and the public sector.


  • Rapid problem and solution identification around a specific topic, e.g. public transit
  • Identify talent (internal and external) and develop skills/capacity
  • Facilitate collaboration between people from different knowledge domains, and build action oriented stakeholder communities
  • Sensitizing workforce to emerging areas


  • Often (wrongly) seen as a way to quickly produce commercially viable apps, though hackathons can surface a series of solution hypotheses that would need to be further explored in depth
  • Strong outputs from a hackathon are contingent on careful design and curation of the event, and getting the right people in the room

Policy Opportunity

  • Strengthen the policy cycle (problem definition, program design, program evaluation, etc.) by engaging a wider pool of internal/external talent, and bringing non-traditional partners together
  • Build capacity of policy community by facilitating knowledge exchange with internal and external stakeholders
  • Facilitate technology, knowledge domain and policy experts working together to ask data policy questions, visualize data in new ways to generate policy insights, prototype digital tools for the policy community
  • Non-traditional way to engage stakeholders in order to identify what’s top of mind via hackathon theme selection, judging criteria, and solution directions
  • Identify knowledge domain experts and technology teams for follow-up engagement post-hackathon


  • Objectives, available data, and event thematic must be clearly defined in advance of the hackathon as they drive event design, who registers, mentor and guest speaker selection, and team composition
  • Hackathons can be challenging to administer so there is value in seeking advice and support from service providers and colleagues with experience in this area
  • Branding, target outreach and team composition are critical for attracting the right participants. If apps and digital tools are the target output of a hackathon, sustained resourcing (time and money) to support teams after the event are necessary for quality prototypes to be built.

Government of Canada

  • Green City Protohack (Natural Resources Canada) is a codeless hackathon to identify non-traditional forestry and energy efficiency stakeholders, and prototype creative solutions related to NRCan’s mandate.
  • PS AppChallenge! (Deputy Minister Committee on Policy Innovation Secretariat and Central Innovation Hub) was a series of event that brought public servants together to develop new Government of Canada mobile apps.
  • Open Data for Development Challenge (Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development) was a two-day event, part codefest and part policy conference, designed to attract programmers, policy makers and subject matter experts to explore questions around open data and international development.


Best in Class

  • Hacking Health is a movement active in more than 40 cities worldwide. Local chapters organize their own cafés, meetups, clinics, workshops, and health hackathons in order to connect healthcare professionals with designers, developers, innovators, and entrepreneurs. It aims to build realistic, human-centric solutions to front-line healthcare problems.
  • OpenNorth is a leading Canadian open data non-profit organization that offers various solutions and civic technology tools for better and more open democracies at both local and national levels.
  • Code for America is a brigade of solutions experts who volunteer to work for cities and communities to build innovation apps to improve service delivery. It includes coding events, an annual summit, and a ‘how to library’ of products such as case studies, projects, and re-usable tools used to solve civic problems.
  • Protohack is a 12-hour code-free hackathon for non-technical entrepreneurs involving networking and prototyping.