​Hacking a Community

Hackathons and codefests are everywhere -- when and how can we make them work as effective community building tools?

SC Faculty and Researchers

James Herbsleb

Anna Filippova

Erik Trainer

Hackathons and codefests are events where people who are not normally collocated converge for a few days to write code together. These community code engagements (CCEs) take a variety forms, and, it seems, they are everywhere. We know that long-term collocation helps advance technical work and facilitate enduring interpersonal relationships, but can similar benefits come from brief, hackathon-style collocation? How do participants spend their time preparing, working face-to-face, and following through these brief encounters? Do the activities participants select suggest a tradeoff between the social and technical benefits of collocation?

With a particular focus on scientists working to build communities to maintain and enhance crucial scientific software, we are undertaking a large, coordinated research program that empirically studies a wide variety of CCEs to understand what ways of organizing work when. What sorts of preparation are effective, how can ideas be proposed and selected, how can teams best be formed, how can these events be made more inclusive, and how can the work be continued as necessary after the event? We are conducting both qualitative and quantitative research to address these questions.

As we find answers, we will organize several CCEs around scientific software projects in the final years of the project. Our final contribution will be to package up what we have learned so that others wanting to form open source communities will have a head start with a survey instrument to assess the prospective community members, agendas, presentations, descriptions of ways to form teams, and other guidance for holding the event, and a second survey instrument to assess short and long term impacts. We will disseminate these materials in a series of workshops to provide detailed guidance and sharing and exchange of ideas.

Project Publications


Chaihirunkarn, C. & Herbsleb, J.D. (2014). Knowing community needs in open-source scientific software development. CSCW Workshop on Sharing, Re-use, and Circulation of Resources in Scientific Cooperative Work.

Trainer, E., Kalyanasundaram, A., Chaihirunkarn, C., and Herbsleb, J.D. 2016. How to Hackathon: Socio-technical Tradeoffs in Brief, Intensive Collocation. Proceedings of the 2016 ACM Conference on Computer-supported Cooperative Work & Social Computing (CSCW 2016, San Francisco, California), pp. 1118-1130.

Trainer, E. H., Chaihirunkarn, C., & Herbsleb, J. D. (2014). The Big Effects of Short-term Efforts: Mentorship and Code Integration in Open Source Scientific Software. Journal of Open Research Software, 2(1), e18.

Trainer, E. H., Chaihirunkarn, C., Kalyanasundaram, A., & Herbsleb, J. (2015). From Personal Tool to Community Resource: What's the Extra Work and Who Will Do It?, ACM conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (pp. 417-430). Vancouver, BC, Canada.

Trainer, E.H., Chaihirunkarn, C., Kalyanasundaram, A., Herbsleb, J.D. (2014). Community Code Engagements: Summer of Code & Hackathons for Community Building in Scientific Software. ACM Conference on Supporting Groupwork (GROUP), Sanibel Island, FL.

Trainer, E.H. & Herbsleb, J.D. (2014). Beyond code: Prioritizing issues, sharing knowledge, and establishing identity at hackathons for science. CSCW Workshop on Sharing, Re-use, and Circulation of Resources in Scientific Cooperative Work.

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