Venues for Participant-Driven Events

The details of the space where the workshop takes place are often overlooked when organizing scientific workshops, but has in practice a huge effect on the dynamics and the success of a workshop, especially on participant-driven events like hack weeks (for a discussion about how physical spaces are key to data science collaborations, see also the MSDSE Report).

There are two key components to discussing the venue: the location (i.e. the country, city and location within the city) that the physical venue is located in, and the venue itself, i.e. the room or rooms where most of the interactions will take place.

Below, we will discuss each in turn. Here, like with all parts of hack week organization, accessibility and inclusion are the key considerations that should come first.


In organizing a hack week events are faced with opportunities and constraints related to the overall physical location of the venue. For example, it may be easier for an organizer to reserve rooms at their local university, or funding agencies might have restrictions on where the event can take place.

There are, however, larger considerations that should play a role when deciding on a venue. For example, it may be difficult to impossible for participants from certain countries to obtain travel visas for the US and some European countries. Organizing a workshop in these countries may therefore exclude an entire group of potential participants. Similarly, flights to certain locations may be particularly expensive and/or cumbersome, requiring multi-day travel for the majority of participants. This, in turn, may exclude participants e.g. with childcare responsibilities, who do not want to spend an extra 3-4 days travelling, or participants for whom long travel is otherwise challenging. There is some trade-off: large cities often have more direct flights (and often also cheaper flights) available, but accommodation may be particularly expensive. This may present a challenge for participants from institutions or countries where funding for conference travel is scarce. Fundraising a significant amount of travel funding through sponsorships and grants can alleviate some of the financial concerns, and in some places, university accommodation might be available for much less cost than a hotel room would cost. Organizing the workshop early, with participant selection being completed somewhere around five months before the start of the workshop can also alleviate both costs and visa issues. Organizers should be prepared to provide some support (e.g. invitation letters) to participants requiring visas.

In addition to accommodation and travel, it is worth asking how accessible the city where the hack week is located is to different foreigners. For example, a small town in France or Germany may be difficult to navigate for participants who do not speak those languages. Many old European cities have uneven cobblestone streets and buildings (especially restaurants or bars) made inaccessible by stairs, which may present a problem for particpants with mobility issues. On the other hand, organizing the workshop in a location with frequent, reliable and accessible public transport is a an advantage, particularly for participants who can not or will not drive a car. Different countries have different attitudes and laws about certain groups of people, and it is important to ask in advance whether the chosen venue will be safe for the participants. For example, organizing a hack week in a country with anti-LBTQ laws excludes these participants from the start.

To summarize, some relevant characteristics to check upon are:

We have so far not found a single location that agrees with all of those points. For recurring events, it may be a good idea to move the event around, in order to improve accessibility to different groups.

One potential solution could also be to organize not one, but multiple events at the same time in different parts of the world, linked through e.g. dedicated video chatrooms, asynchronous chat organizations and other technological means. Especially for heavily oversubscribed workshops, this might allow a wider range of people to participate in these events. As of now, none of the hack weeks has tried this, though some (especially Astro Hack Week) are considering this model.

Characteristics of the ideal Hack Week Venue

The considerations above are meant to help organizers ask general questions about who will and who will not be able to attend the workshop, given the chosen location. However, ensuring that participants can physically attend the hack week is only the first step in providing a welcomin and inclusive venue for the hack week. The second set of considerations concerns the venue itself, i.e. the building and the room or rooms where the workshop will take place in practice. As with the discussion about the general location above, there are fundamental questions to ask about whether a venue is not just accessible, but actively welcoming to all participants. Can participants with mobility aids freely access the building without help? Are there signs and sound signals that help vision-impaired participants navigate the space? Are there gender-neutral bathrooms? Making sure that all participants feel welcome in the space where the workshop takes place is the first step towards building an inclusive learning community and workshop.

Hack weeks live in part from the shared excitement and energy of working towards a set of common goals for a fixed, short amount of time. Having a central room where teams can work helps generate and sustain that energy. At the same time, these spaces can be loud and chaotic, which might actively impede progress during certain phases of a project, or be fundamentally unsuited to some participants. Having break-out rooms where teams can retreat for focused work in a quieter atmosphere is hugely beneficial, especially when those rooms are still physically connected in some way to the main location (e.g. visually through glass walls). For example, Astro Hack Week 2018 took place at the Lorentz Center in Leiden (NL). The venue provided a large room for about 50 participants as the main venue, in addition to a large coffee and break-out room, as well as shared office space for all participants. These spaces were all physically in close proximity, allowing project teams to spread out and work in whatever environment was most beneficial to their project and team culture.

In addition, many participants may require some quiet time. A recent conference had a room designated as Introvert Alley, a room for quiet rest and relaxation, where participants could quietly read or work for a while. It should be made clear, however, that these spaces are not meant e.g. for participants to take phone calls, which might disturb other participants present.

Beyond considerations related to accessibility, organizers should ask whether the space is designed for project work. For example, traditional lecture theatres are often set up in such a way that every participants faces the front of the room, and often tables and chairs are bolted to the floor. In these spaces, collaborative group work is difficult because it is difficult for participants to gather and work in groups. The ideal space for tutorials and project work is flexible and reconfigurable. For example, tables and chairs on wheels allow participants to quickle reconfigure the space according to their needs. Because project teams tend to spread out, it can be helpful to plan for a room that's about 1/3 larger than the designated group size (for example, one may want to book a room that can accomodate 65 participants for a group that is 50 participants large). Aside from the ability to reconfigure the room, there are several practical considerations: an ample supply of power outlets are crucial for workshops where the majority of projects will make heavy use of computers. Rooms where projects take place should also provide an ample supply of writeable surfaces, such as white boards or glass walls. Tutorials often involve slides or live-demos using a computer. Organizers should ensure that all participants can easily see the screen where the slides or demo are projected.

For the hack weeks, we have often found it beneficial to provide coffee, tea, biscuits and lunch to participants during coffee and lunch breaks. These are valuable opportunities for participants to interact in an informal way, and providing coffee and lunch breaks in-house avoids the group breaking up into smaller sub-groups of people who already knew each other in advance. However, not all spaces allow food and drink: organizers should ensure that their spaces allow coffee and lunch to be provided close to or at the hack week venue.

Several hack weeks have made use of the Active Learning Classrooms in the Odegaard Undergraduate Library at the University of Washington. These are interactive, collaborative spaces comprising a set of tables each seating nine participants, with power outlets for each participant in the center of the table. Each table also has its own screen, and the overall system allows the connection from any table to display either on that screen specifically, or project to all screens simultaneously. This allows all participants to follow along with tutorials regardless of where they sit, and also makes sharing results during the wrap-up easy. In addition, the room has small alcoves for about four participants along one wall, allowing for smaller group work in a somewhat sheltered space. These alcoves have tables and walls that are writeable, and the walls around the rooms can be used as whiteboards as well. These active learning class rooms are a great example of a space designed for interactive tutorials and project work, although they do lack break-out rooms that are physically separated enough to reduce noise and distraction. While food and drink were not allowed in the room itself, coffee and lunch could be served right outside.

To summarize, here are some general considerations for the hack week venue: * Are the building and the rooms accessible and welcoming to all students? * Does the room in principle accommodate a somewhat larger number of participants than is projected to attend? * Is the room easily reconfigurable to address different needs during tutorials and project work? * Are there power outlets that are easily accessible to all participants? * Is there ample board space for writing, designing, and sketching out ideas? * Is there a system in place for displaying slides and tutorials, and is the screen visible from everywhere in the room? * Are there separate rooms where teams can withdraw for focused work? * Can one of those rooms be designated as a room for quiet time, to allow participants to temporarily withdraw from the controlled chaos of the hack week? * Does the venue allow food and drink either within the rooms or in close proximity? If there will be catering coming and going during the event, see if there is an area in the back or just outside the main tutorial space where the coffee and/or foods can be set up without distracting participants and disrupting the tutorial. If your hackweek is in a public space such as a library, try to avoid having the foods set up where non-participants can have access.