Cancer Central hackathon

My first hackathon: Cancer Central in Bristol, June 2019.

A few days ago I took part in my first hackathon in Bristol for Cancer Central, with the aim of improving the search results on their website. I had been intending on taking part in a hackathon for several years as I enjoy creative collaboration and wanted to try something challenging outside of my usual work. I’ve also found it hard to find projects that do social good, so the Cancer Central hackathon seemed like a great fit.

Who are Cancer Central?

Cancer Central are a CIC with the aim of connecting cancer patients with products, services and information that can improve their lives. CEO and founder Avril Chester was an IT director who struggled to find cancer-related products / services via Google during her own battle with cancer. She has coined the phrase ”cominovation” to describe their use of community-based solutions to solving problems and delivering technical solutions.

What’s a Cancer Central hackathon like?

Before the official start to the hackathon people gradually arrived, grabbed a tea or coffee and chatted to the other participants. I spoke to maybe 4 or 5 people at the beginning. Everyone was friendly and easy to talk to, there was a mix of people who’d come on their own and groups who knew each other. Following that there were enthusiastic presentations from Avril and co-organisers from Code Untapped and CGI Global. This was great at setting the tone of the day - friendly and collaborative. We were informed at the end of the day each team would present their ideas and solution to be judged by a panel.

Following that we were split into teams via a slightly confusing method of walking around the room and eventually being divided up in 4 groups of 4-5 people. This seemed to take longer than it should and revealed there were only two designers in attendance and too many developers.

Once the teams were set everyone was raring to go and in our team ideas were rapidly discussed. Everyone was acutely aware of the lack of time which I think helped ideas flow more freely. However, it was a struggle to stay focussed on the problem without going off on a tangent. We also found we were jumping straight to technical solutions, rather than considering wider problems - probably due to everyone being from a technical background. It’s interesting to note the winning team had the most diverse range of job roles and backgrounds. The main part of the day we worked on the problem and every hour had a stand-up to discuss what we’d been doing and intending on doing next, which helped refocus.

The day was quite frenetic and time flew by. Half-way through the day our team agreed there wasn’t time to come up with a reasonable idea and build it (a two-day hackathon would have suited this), so we went down the route of spending time on the idea and building wireframes to talk through. About an hour after this we were informed we would need to built a working prototype of some sort. It was hard to know whether we were being judged on our ideas or our ability to build something quickly under pressure. We ended up with a pretty half-baked prototype I threw together in the last hour (the backend guys produced a pretty nice API but it was hard to demo in the presentation). We left the presentation to one member of the team to work on, retrospectively our whole team should have got together in the last 30 mins to help him with this as its a key part of the hackathon.

Following the build all the teams presented. To me it looked like most of the teams suffered from the same issues as us - they hadn’t spent their time wisely, their good ideas were lost in muddled presentations and their prototypes were fairly pointless (other than they prove the team can code under pressure). Following the presentation there was a Q&A with the judges, there were some interesting questions at this point and the judges had a lot of industry experience. There was often better debate at this point than the presentations, perhaps due to the judges being clearer on the requirements than the participants.

Was it any good?

Despite the presentations and demos being a bit of a farce the hackathon overall was a positive experience for those taking part and Cancer Central themselves.

For the participants, throwing themselves into unfamiliar surroundings to work with new people is quite a challenge - I was impressed at how well everyone got on in working together towards a common goal. Additionally, it was a great opportunity to practice working under pressure. Finally, seeing the founders of Cancer Central and Code Untapped working towards realising their visions was really quite inspiring.

I doubt Cancer Central will be using any of the work produced in the hackathon but I could see how ideas and questions raised in the process were both useful and inspiring to them - often organisations become quite closed in design and build processes and it was refreshing seeing one opening itself up.

Things that worked well:

  • Enthusiastic participants with relevant skills and ideas
  • Good working environment
  • Experienced judges
  • Easy to ask questions of Avril (Cancer Central’s founder)

Suggestions for participants

  • Try and get in a team with a diverse range of job roles and backgrounds
  • Be very clear on requirements and timings
  • Come up with a plan for how you will divide your time
  • Don’t forget the importance of the presentation

Suggestions for organisers

  • Encourage more diverse participants (in particular designers / creatives)
  • Clearer deliverables and timeframes printed out on every table1
  • Less faffing at beginning
  • It would have been great to have existing website users (or target market) to try out solutions as they were build

1 while the concept of “cominovation” was introduced, maybe this could be developed into a hackathon framework (like Google Design Sprints). At its most basic this could suggest the problem was identified by X hour, solution concept agreed by X hour, design / tech spec by X hour etc.

A great learning experience

Personally I found it a great learning experience for my first hackathon - I’d encourage you to give one a try if you haven’t already.

Shout outs to Cancer Central, Code Untapped and CGI Global for organising the hackathon.