Post-conference blues at the King 5 hackathon?

King 5's hackathon last weekend was the first event organized by a major broadcasting company to code innovative new programs to deliver and gather news. But will the winners of this weekend's ideas conference just fizzle out like other hackathon projects?

A planning session at King 5's hackathon.

A planning session at King 5's hackathon. Lucas Anderson

This article originally ran on the blog of the Washington News Council.

Hackathons are getting trendy. Not just in journalism, but health care, education, entrepreneurism, crisis management, mobile tech, government, and other arenas. Yes, it’s another technology buzz word, but one that hopefully sticks around and evolves into a combustible formula. Bringing together software experts and social leaders who sprint together to solve big challenges is a remarkable thing, especially when there’s a $10,000 prize attached to it.

That’s the ante that KING 5 News put up over the weekend, in the first ever hackathon run by the broadcast industry. The NBC affiliate’s digital media director, Mark Briggs, laid out his vision of a means of unearthing quality news in the same way that one would find the right place to eat brunch in New York City. Describing his recent trip to the Big Apple, Briggs pointed out that finding a delicious spot could take hours, or it could take five minutes; the difference being whether you know someone who lives there.

Other information challenges were presented by co-organizer Shauna Causey and local meme expert Ben Huh, who both had different ways of expressing a similar need for relevant information served up in a dynamic, user friendly environment. Mr. Huh shared a mockup of his recently announced Moby Dick Project, which generated a warm current of ideas through the room, eventually leading 12 people to step forward and pitch their solution in under two minutes.

Grinding around the clock is not for the faint of heart. Roughly one half of the 65 people who signed up actually made it out to the Friday night kickoff, followed by a 30 percent evaporation of those people by the start of the first working day. Part of the dissipation was due to the pull of AT&T's mobile hackathon hosted the same weekend.

Participants could sign up as a designer (8), news geek (30), technologist (21), or developer (11). As is typical in tech situations, the demographic was skewed heavily male. In fact, you could count the number female competitors on your nose (two). However, there is a hacker movement that has worked to change that with a ladies-only hackathon.

Based on a show of hands, half the crowd reported that they had been to a hackathon before. Some were graduates of Startup Weekend (which began in Seattle), others had helped with Random Hacks of Kindness and Crisis Commons.

As expected, Seattle’s tech industry had a clear presence in the room. The event took place on Adobe’s Fremont campus, who donated their shiny space and helped purchase some of the food. Amazon gave away a $50 of free AWS Cloud hosting to all participants who showed up and also footed the pizza bill. The winning team had a current Microsoft employee on board, as well as a former employee who recently walked away from his job to start his own company. Most people were locals, though one pair came from Portland, and one fellow even flew in from San Francisco to bust his chops for both the KING5 and AT&T hackathons. There were at least a few startups that were represented amongst the crowd as well, the ones I met with were from Timber Software and DocuSign.

Also interesting were two Microsoft employees hovering the room who were evangelizing the Open Data Protocol (Odata), which they happily develop during their day jobs. They were very helpful in providing general information not just about their product, but all things big data, and even let me pick their brains about various pet peeves and challenges across tech in general. Although they were very candid and unbiased in their opinions, it’s worth mentioning that employees of big companies like Microsoft sign a contract that they cannot participate in certain activities outside of the job (i.e. hackathons) that may conflict with the business interests of their employer. They chose to forfeit their odds of competing for the $10,000 in order to avoid brushing up against any sort of dispute, but were pleasantly willing to donate their time to help others succeed.


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