2014 was a busy year for on-campus hackathons, particularly in the digital humanities realm. (What is a hackathon? Read more here).  Working with partners at the Library and the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology (PAHMA), Digital Humanities at Berkeley helped organize two events that gathered teams for challenges such as building a new interface for a digital archive and developing applications for K-12 students.  In honor of the Free Speech Movement’s 50th anniversary, the Library hosted HackFSM, a hackathon for the Bancroft’s Free Speech Movement Digital Archive in April.  Modeling the Bancroft’s approach, PAHMA hosted HackTheHearst in September.

On January 29th, Mary Elings (Head of Digital Collections, Bancroft Library) and Michael Black (Head of Research & Information Systems at the Hearst Museum) joined the Research IT Reading Group to share their experiences as organizers of these events.  Hackathon organizers from AngelHack and the Berkeley Center for New Media also joined the discussion and offered their advice.  Breaking from a traditional hackathon model (24 to  48 hours of intensive coding), both events were stretched out over 12 days, recruited both technical and subject area mentors to advise teams, and emphasized the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration.  This new event format offered organizers a new set of opportunities and challenges.  

Both presenters agreed that hackathons brought a new host of students and community members to engage with the rich data of digital collections.  Though prizes were awarded at both events, most participants noted that their primary motivation for joining was the chance to explore the collections and solve unusual problems.  Projects ranged from rough prototypes to polished applications, and teams offered a set of fresh ideas for interacting with the collections, such as incorporating archival audio and transcripts from the Pop Up Archive, using a map-based approach to viewing California Indian artifacts, and examining 3D models of artifacts via augmented reality apps.  Other teams took advantage of subject mentors in the K-12 education field and conducted user testing with a local 5th grade classroom for a game featuring Egyptian artifacts.

Enabling interdisciplinary collaboration and including a diversity range of participants remains a top priority for future events.  We hope to continue refining these events and explore hackathons as a place where rapid collaboration can benefit a variety of students, archivists, community members, and campus organizations.  


Read organizers’ reflections in the HackFSM whitepaper (#HackFSM: Bootstrapping a Library Hackathon in Eight Short Weeks) and in the reading group notes.  Photo: courtesy of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology