Purdue's IronHacks series puts unique spin on hackathons

Purdue's IronHacks series puts unique spin on hackathons

Open innovation
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Hackathons are well-known as events where developers come together to quickly turn out a piece of software, often competing against each other. But what if they were also a place for learning? The Research Center for Open Digital Innovation at Purdue University is making that happen. The IronHacks series of hackathons is designed to allow participants to learn from judges and Center researchers to learn from the participants.

Unlike traditional hackathons, which are generally of short duration, IronHacks are conducted over three weeks. This allows for more thoughtful design and iterative feedback from the judges. In the spirit of openness, projects are visible to all participants. In a recent event, performance scores were shown to improve more rapidly when a participant looked at other projects more frequently. With this information, future hackers can be given better advice on how to best manage and develop their project.

Each IronHack is focused on a particular civic problem. In a recent IronHack, participants were asked to design a tool to identify the best places to rent apartments near the Purdue campus. Because the university has a large out-of-state and international enrollment, such a tool is very helpful to incoming students. Using criteria like prices, crime rate, and location, participants developed tools using open data that would allow a user to find the right place for them. Participants were free to incorporate whatever open data sets they felt would improve the quality of their project.

The most recent event, called the Green IronHack, concluded April 19, 2016. It was done in a classroom setting for a graduate-level data warehousing course. However, most IronHacks are open to students and the general public alike. The next IronHack, to begin in late summer, will be conducted in partnership with Open Indy Brigade, the Indianapolis branch of Code for America. Using local data and concerns makes the projects more engaging for participants, whether they are casual or hardcore developers.

Anyone wishing to participate in the Yellow IronHack should watch the RCODI Twitter and Facebook accounts for announcements. Those who are interested in studying hackathons and other open digital innovation topics can apply to the master's program the center recently launched. Information is available on the RCODI website. The Research Center for Open Digital Innovation is directed by professor Sabine Brunswicker. IronHacks is supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation's Science of Science and Innovation Policy program and industry partners including Red Hat, Socrata, and GitHub.

About the author

Ben Cotton - Ben Cotton is a meteorologist by training, but weather makes a great hobby. Ben works as the Fedora Program Manager at Red Hat. He co-founded a local open source meetup group, and is a member of the Open Source Initiative and a supporter of Software Freedom Conservancy. Find him on Twitter (@FunnelFiasco) or at FunnelFiasco.com.