Building Community, Innovation: The Power of Coding Workshops, Hackathons for Nonprofit News Organizations

(This report was written in 2013 and was accurate as of that time.)

Social coding events like coding workshops, codeathons, and hackathons seem to be happening on a weekly basis in the United States and around the world. Do a quick search online and you will be surprised to see the number of events being held in your own state or city.

The premise of these social coding events is to bring people together with different skills sets (e.g. designers, developers, journalists, etc.) for a few hours to a few days (depending on the event), to learn (code or new skills) or to build something (an idea, an app, a platform, a data visualization, etc.) and in the process, network with each other, build community and hopefully have a good time.

Social coding events have become more popular in recent years due to the increasing open civic data movement in the United States and around the world. Hacks/Hackers, Code for America, as well as local open-source/civic-tech coding communities, and start-ups have all been leading the way in hosting these kind of social coding events over the years.

This week I take a look into what it takes for a nonprofit news organization to implement its own social coding event. I had the opportunity to talk with three coding event experts who share their insights on what news organizations need to keep in mind when deciding to host a coding event:

The Experts

  • Erika Owens is community manager of the Knight-Mozilla Open News initiative. They host Hack Days that are coding events for news organizations and/or the public. They also do code sprints that are geared toward to helping a news organization solve a coding problem. News organizations can apply for a $10,000 grant “to fund small-scale utilities and tools that help solve specific, repeatable journalistic problems.”
  • Sisi Wei is co-founder of Code with me and also a news apps developer at ProPublica. Code with me teaches journalists the foundations of HTML, CSS and JavaScript over a two-day workshop. It’s a 2-to-1 student-to-mentor ratio for the workshop. They have hosted workshops in Austin, Portland, Miami and Washington D.C.
  • Travis Swicegood is director of technology at the Texas Tribune. Swicegood has participated in several hack day events including ones with Open Austin and also organizes programming meet-ups in Austin.

Starting Point – Building the Community


If you are interested in launching a social coding event, you need to have a clear goal of why you want to do it. Don’t just think hosting one will lead to a new app, program or miraculous innovation. You need to set up your goals of what you want to get out of the coding event. That goal should come back to the community you serve.

Travis Swicegood says when launching a coding event it depends on the aim of your organization and what you do.

If your organization focuses on specific news coverage about the environment, health, politics or education, your coding event should tie into what you do and how your coding event can tie back to that.

“News organizations are generally in the business of telling stories,” Swicegood says, “If you are going to do a hackathon from my perspective, the ideal situation is that you have some sort of question or some sort of story you want to tell and provide a place for people to come together and try out different ways to do that.”

Coding events are not just about bringing together developers, programmers, creatives, journalists and citizens from the community to make something it’s about building community.

This is an opportunity to engage with people in your community that are passionate about their work, the skills they can bring to the table, and how they can make their own neighborhood or city better by helping in a particular initiative and have fun while doing it.

“Knowing your community and knowing your audience is important,” Erika Owens says. “If you have a relationship with your community, you will know what is best for your community. Laying the ground work beforehand helps the event succeed more than the venue or setting.”

By knowing your community it can help you figure out what kind of coding event may be best. For example, you could host a coding event tied around creating a new web app around a specific civic issue that you have been covering recently in your community that matters to the public.

Another aspect to launching a coding event is if you want to teach something instead of build something.

Sisi Wei, co-founder of Code with me hosts two-day coding workshops for journalists to help them with their coding skills. They provide individualized instruction over a two-day period and help journalists learn HTML, CSS and javascript. They have a 2-to-1 student-mentor ratio.

Wei says you can teach a lot in a coding workshop in two days if you give a lot of individualized instruction with the 2-to-1 developer-journalist ratio. They have found that model has been helpful and successful for the journalists they have trained.

Wei states that their aim of the coding workshop is to teach code but importantly, they want to help people know how to teach themselves how to program.

At the end of the workshop, “If you can’t remember a single piece of syntax of how to do HTML or CSS, but can remember how to look it up and what to look up and how to figure what to look up, that is the aim and what we drill into our students,” Wei says.

Wei says that people don’t have to wait until Code with me comes to their city to do a coding workshop. She says cities that have vibrant journalism and development communities can create their own coding workshops.

When doing a coding workshop, keeping it small is key. This allows for the mentors to easily help students during the training.

If a coding workshop is appealing, think about how a workshop can help train citizens, journalists, students and other constituents in your community on how to code –and perhaps toward a bigger project or outcome.

For example, INN Member, Oakland Local has a summer program now underway called Hack the Hood: Oakland to train local youth web tech skills and they use the skills they learn to help local businesses with their web presence.

The important thing to keep in mind is that you need to identify your goal first for doing a coding event and how this ties back to the community you serve.

Here are some questions to help you start:

  1. Do you have a particular issue, theme or story that you want to cover in your community?
  2. Do you want to build an app, platform or some other kind of innovation that ties into that theme/issue or story?
  3. Do you want to teach code or programming for a greater project or purpose that ties back to your community?
  4. How will this coding event help the community?
  5. How can the community help you in building this project?
  6. What will be the short-term/long-term outcome of the coding event?

After answering these questions, you can have a better sense of whether a coding workshop, codeathon or hackathon may be best for your news organization.

Look In Your Own Backyard

Once you have an idea of what you want to do, next comes the planning.

When it comes to planning your coding event, don’t think you should do it alone. There are a lot of potential partners in your own community you can work with in order to make it a success.

Owens recommends spending time seeing what is already out there and talk with the developers and programmers in your community.

“Engage with the existing technology community in your area,” Owens says. ”Get connected with those communities and see how they function, see who is involved with them, what kinds of collaboration activities there are.”

Owens suggests checking out local meet-ups or one-day unconferences to see what is out there and to meet the people doing development work in your community. These kinds of events and connections can help you to see exactly how your coding event can develop and who you can collaborate/partner with.

She also recommends it can be a good idea to attend a coding event and experience it. This can give you insight into what you did and didn’t like at the event and how you would like your own event to go.

By engaging with the community in these ways, you will have a better idea of who you want to partner with, who should be participating in the event, and what you want to do.

The Logistics

When planning a coding event, whether it is a workshop during an afternoon or a weekend-long marathon event, it does take time to plan all the logistics. You need to think about the following:

The venue – where will you host it?

You may be able to use your existing newsroom or building for the event. Perhaps your local university, community center or library may have space to provide?

The food – what kind of beverages and food will you serve?

Coding events thrive on food and drink. You need at minimum snacks and coffee. Ideally, you should plan on having a meal (something as simple as pizza and beer) to keep people hydrated and fed. It will keep the energy and concentration levels up throughout the event.

The infrastructure – what kind of Internet connection and equipment will you provide?

It’s important to have a good Internet connection so people can work seamlessly during the event. Most people will probably bring their own computers, but plan on the possibility that some members from the community may not have their own equipment (this may be more important if you are teaching code to the community for a workshop).

The content – what will be the purpose? Will they build something? Learn something?

Owens suggests have a pre-meeting or brainstorm event prior to the coding event to get people excited about the event and also to help set the expectations for the event.

“Having some sort of pre-brainstorming event or just getting people together thinking about what kind of project they want to work on before the Hack day event can be helpful,” she says. “It gives people a chance to know what is a hack event and do some initial sketching of the project and who they would need to have on their team and who could come to the hack event.”

Registration – what kind of system will you use to allow for people to register?

It’s important that you keep track of who is coming so you know exactly what kind of participants will come and with what skill sets they have so you can make sure your coding event is successful.

Owens states one of the biggest lessons she has learned and experienced from participating in and hosting multiple coding events is the composition of the participants who attend the event. It can make or break the event.

“A helpful thing when you have the event registration is asking people to self-identify what their skillset is – that goes a long way to both help the organizer control how many people with what skillset are registered for the event but also to help make sure there aren’t too many of one type of skillset,” Owens says. “Particularly with journalism hackathons, it’s usually good to have 2-to-1 ratio to two developers to each journalist – that can be a good balance.”

Tools – what kind of digital and non-digital tools will you make available to participants?

For any coding event, you should plan on having a digital platform for participants to be able to share, edit and save their work. GitHub has become a popular tool for many coding events where participants can upload, edit and save files as they build them during the coding event.

Owens recommends Hackdash. It helps organize and visualize the development process during the hackathon.

Swicegood recommends Heroku. It allows participants to have a place to host projects and deploy them quickly for a demo without complication during the event.

On the non-digital side, you should plan on having pens, markers, notepads and whiteboards for people to have a place to brainstorm and write things down in their groups.

Incentives/Prizes – what kind of prizes will you give to those attend?

Not all coding events expect prizes or incentives, especially if you are teaching code in a workshop, but if you are hosting a hackathon there may be an expectation of some prize for the individual(s) that had the best idea or project. Make sure to communicate ahead of time whether there will be prizes or not so people know what to expect.

Who will pay for what – coding events do entail costs for a variety of resources. Be prepared to have a budget and think carefully of what you can and can’t afford.

Owens says in-kind donations and sponsorships can help with covering some of the expenses for a coding event such as getting help for web hosting, data services, applications, food, venue, etc.

Contact vendors, organizations and companies in your community and they may be able to give some free licenses or in-kind donations for the event.

Owens said they spend $1,500-$2,000 for their OpenNews Hack Day events which usually covers food, some travel for speakers/participants, and facilitation/organization of the event. Owens says this cost can vary as it depends on where you are located and the resources you have.

For more tips on logistics and planning, Owens has a journalism hack day preparation guide on GitHub you can check out: 

Who Owns What?

During a coding event, it’s possible that you may have the creation of a new product or innovation. It’s important to keep in mind the expectations of what you build and who owns that product – is it your news organization? The community? The developer? Wired recently published an article on the legal implications of who owns innovations and products that are created from coding events like Hackathons.

Of course, this may be more applicable in the start-up culture for specific for-profit companies, but news organizations should not steer away from having the conversation and be ready to communicate to the participants at the event your guidelines on this if you are asked.

Make Sure to Plan Fun

Lastly, coding events are meant to be social and that means don’t forget to include the fun. A big part to hosting and implementing these kinds of events is that it is a chance for people to meet and network, gain new skills, share knowledge, and have a fun environment in which to do this.

Make sure to include breaks throughout the coding event for people to talk and get to know each other. This could be through icebreaker activities, meal breaks, exercise activities, dance competitions, etc. The sky is the limit on what ways you can bring fun into the coding event.