Objectives and Goals of a Hack Week

Key to the hack week organization process--and perhaps the process of organizing any meeting---is a clear understanding what the hack week is for. What goals and objectives are the organizers pursuing by organizing this hack week? Are these goals personal goals or community-level goals? Some community-level goals might include bringing more data science methods into the community, building a cohort of like-minded researchers, making progress on a specific tool, software package or data set, and building a set of tools to address one specific or multiple scientific challenges.

Our hack weeks are very non-uniform in their goals and objectives. For example, Astro Hack Week pitches itself as widely as possible: while the focus of the tutorials is often on new methods and tools, any broadly astronomy-themed hack is welcome. This could include developing new software, but could also mean providing a document of resources for teaching, designing a new logo for an organization, or building tutorials for computational and astronomy subjects. Geo Hack Week, in contrast is more narrow in scope and focuses on improving computational and programming literacy in the Geosciences community, and on working directly on software tools that address geophysical challenges. The IceSat-2 Hack Week is even more narrowly scoped on developing next-generation tools for a new space mission.

It is worth pointing out explicitly that none of those is better than the other. They are designed differently to solve different challenges in different communities, and the hack week model easily accomodates different goals that the organizers might pursue. In any of these cases, however, it is important to be clear among the organizers what those goals and objectives actually are, and perhaps spell them out, for example in a mission statement. They form the basis of much of the subsequent organization, ranging from questions of whether participants require pre-knowledge during participant selection to facilitating the hacks themselves.

Ideally, an organizing committee should start with the question: What are we trying to achieve? From there, one can write down a set of big-picture themes that provide the basis for more specific goals, as well as actions that help achieve those goals. In this context, it is also helpful for organizers to discuss and settle on a set of core values that the organizers aim to follow in their organization of the workshop. These values will align with the overall mission of hack weeks and will represent the specific dimensions of that mission that the organizers wish to amplify, and could include values like kindness, collaborativeness, and attentiveness, to name a few. The values defined in this stage might in part form the basis for developing the code of conduct, and are helpful when framing facilitation strategies.

Some hackathons have also experienced with user stories in order to build a narrative around goals and objectives, and to identify problems and barriers for participants in achieving those goals. User stories in this context are short narratives centred around hypothetical participants, and describe for example what such a participant might tell their colleague or supervisor after the event. Our hack weeks have never implemented this approach, but some are considering it for future iterations.

For Astro Hack Week, the goals generally include:

Target Audience and Scoping to Specific Communities

Most directly related to the goals and objectives is the question of who the target audience for the workshop is. In our experience, the question of what the goals and objectives are arises naturally during the selection process of participants. In order to understand what a cohort matched to the goals and objectives of the workshop looks like, one first must understand what those goals are. With broadly scoped workshops like Astro Hack Week or Geo Hack Week, one might start from those goals and objectives and then ask what the target audience for these goals is. For example, a workshop that is very heavily focused on software development might wish to set minimum requirements for coding ability at the onset (though one important consideration in this process should be if the target audience as defined might systematically disadvantage candidate from specific backgrounds).

Some organizers might wish to follow this process the other way around: perhaps the organizers have a very specific audience in mind that they wish to serve, and then work to identify specific needs of that community in order to set goals and expectations for the workshop. For example, the IceSat-2 hack week was centred around the community expected to take advantage of the new data sets this mission creates. The organizers identified a lack of openly available tools to this end, and designed the hack week specifically to provide a venue to start projects around the creation of those tools.

In practice, setting goals and defining a target audience are interlinked. Even committees approaching the problem from the goals perspective will often have identified a persistent need in the target audience first, that they feel they can start addressing by organizing the workshop.

While many of the objectives for Astro Hack Week are related to data science and its place within the astronomy community, the target audience is intentionally kept broad, and includes researchers from both astronomy and other research fields, academia and industry, early-career and senior researchers. The guiding principle is that great ideas and innovation may come from anywhere, and that these ideas may or may not involve code or data science. Astro Hack Week strives to provide a venue for many types of ideas and projects, and thus imposes very few requirements on potential participants.


Once you have defined your workshop goals, and identified a target audience, how do you reach that target audience in practice? A website is a useful tool to convey information about the workshop, as are announcements via e-mail or social media. Crafting both the website and announcements carefully is important here: the announcement should be clear about the goals and objectives, but also share the values of the workshop and the community and environment that the organizers strive to create. Often researchers will read announcements and websites quite closely to figure out whether the event aligns with their interests and values. Especially because hackathons as events have negative connotations with some groups of people, communicating the community-focused and collaborative nature of the hack weeks is important to reach researchers who might otherwise feel discouraged from applying. It should be obvious, but is worth pointing out explicitly, that an event should only be advertised as inclusive if the organizers are committed and are taking active steps to make the event inclusive. Asking researchers to spend their valuable time, money and effort to attend a workshop that in practice might be exclusionary to them or actively harmful to their well-being and/or careers should not ever happen.

In practical terms, like with other conferences, we largely rely on traditional channels of sharing conference announcements: personal networks, professional societies and social media like Twitter. Because Astro Hack Week also has a mandate of improving the participation of minority researchers in data science research in astronomy, we also reach out to community groups that serve these researchers.