What is the Value of Hack Days?

Martin Fenner
November 4, 2013 4 min read

This Friday and Saturday the SpotOn London Conference ( will take place at the British Library in London. I am very excited, as I have come to this conference since the first one in 2008 (, and have helped organize the event since 2009. The conference is about science communication in the broadest sense, and has three strands that focus on science communication, science policy and tools. Equally important as the sessions are of course the many highly engaging informal discussions of the 250 participants that take place between and after the sessions.

Presenting from SpotOn London 2012 hackathon. One of the projects in 2012 was a collaborative commenting system. Picture from Flickr (, taken by Lou Woodley.

SpotOn London sessions are also more conversations than presentations, as they usually have 2-4 panelists with ample time for discussion with the audience. I will take part in two panels:

I will summarize my thoughts regarding the altmetrics session in another post, but want to talk about the first session in more detail. According to the English Wikipedia (

A hackathon (also known as a hack day, hackfest or codefest) is an event in which computer programmers and others involved in software development, including graphic designers, interface designers and project managers, collaborate intensively on software projects.
Wikimedia Hackathon Berlin June 2012. Largest hackathon I have attended so far with 100 people. Photo by Gulliaume Paumier, CC-BY license.

It is too bad that we will have no hackathon at year’s SpotOn London for logistical reasons, but the session is a great opportunity to reflect on the value of science hackdays. It is clear that hackdays for scientific software have become popular, with almost too many opportunities to participate.

What I like

  • Do stuff. And have plenty of time to do stuff instead sessions in short intervals
  • Hackdays let you do great team work
  • Learn about other interesting projects and meet people doing cool work
ALM 2012 hackathon ( Brainstorming board from anti-gaming group.
#hack4ac. Our team working on PLOS Author Contributions (

What I don’t like

ALM 2012 hackathon ( Sparkline visualization implemented by OJS based on work at the workshop.

Some of the challenges

  • Coming up with projects where progress can be made in a day or two
  • Technology: WiFi access, access to servers for code deployment, collaboration tools, etc.
  • Come up with a good unifying theme, so that the various projects during the hackday relate to each other. The theme at #hack4ac ( was to demonstrate the value of the CC-BY license within academia.

Some ideas to improve science hackdays

Carmeliet, P. (2005). Angiogenesis in life, disease and medicine. Nature, 438(7070), 932–936.
Contopoulos-Ioannidis, D. G., Alexiou, G. A., Gouvias, T. C., & Ioannidis, J. P. A. (2008). Life Cycle of Translational Research for Medical Interventions. Science, 321(5894), 1298–1299.
Opening Science – The Evolving Guide on How the Internet is Changing Research, Collaboration and Scholarly Publishing (n.d.). Retrieved February 21, 2021, from
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2005. (2015). In

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