GovHack hosts first virtual open-data hackathon on Slack

Slack channels bring together teams who are using government data to solve problems for a post-pandemic future

Author: Christine Kent 25th October 2020Illustration by Sabrena Khadija

The words “open government data” might not sound thrilling to many of us. But for the thousands of people who have taken part in Australia’s GovHack every year since 2009, there’s nothing more exciting than taking run-of-the-mill datasets and creating applications that help solve some of society’s most pressing problems. 

During the 2019 GovHack, which took place all over Australia and New Zealand, eager participants brainstormed projects for finding carpools in Auckland or caring for wildlife in Queensland. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic added new twists to GovHack. 

The 500 hackathon participants on 160 teams rose to the challenge of addressing resiliency and recovery for their communities, plus the “new normal” for working, learning and playing online. Teams created projects for improving government services in coronavirus outbreak areas, connecting job seekers with employers, and becoming “bushfire-ready” by tracking fire locations. 

GovHack also went fully digital to keep participants safe, inspiring the organisations all-volunteer staff to replicate the hacker team experience virtually. Using Slack, the channel-based messaging platform, GovHack maintained a running dialogue with hacker participants and staff, while helping teams move projects to the finish line. During the hackathon:

  • Almost 900 members were active during the hackathon weekend
  • 112,000 messages were shared
  • 6,200 files were shared

With 576 Slack channels for teams and volunteers, GovHack’s first all-digital hackathon generated 160 projects—and lots of enthusiasm for keeping the virtual hackathon vibe going throughout the year.

“The more efficient we can get with the tools we have, like Slack, the better we can make the most of our limited time and resources.”

Jan BrysonSponsorship Director, GovHack

Operating a successful hackathon on Slack 

GovHack operations, technology and competition teams are almost entirely volunteer-run. In past years, when the event was a mix of in-person and online competition, volunteers used Slack to keep participants up to date on deadlines before the big weekend. An all-virtual hackathon gave the volunteer team the chance to use Slack not only to plan GovHack but also to run the actual competition.

With channels like #hackserspace-help, #comp-help and #tech-help, organisers quickly answered questions about the hackathon, technical issues, and creating projects from participants and key volunteers across Australia and New Zealand. Regional leads sent a steady stream of targeted reminders about registration and livestream events via the #announcements channel. GovHack also used the Slack Block Kit to make participant messages more engaging, with buttons, pictures and icons.

“The more efficient we can get with the tools we have, like Slack, the better we can make the most of our limited time and resources,” says Jan Bryson, GovHack’s sponsorship director. 



Creating communities with Slack channels

Keeping excitement high during a hackathon is relatively easy when participants meet in person and bounce ideas off each other. In an all-online event, where GovHack leaders had to encourage teamwork, maintain schedules, and cheer on participants, Slack became both the communications hub for teams and the place to push projects to the GovHack finish line.

In addition to Slack channels for each project team, GovHack created a channel called #find-team solely for people who wanted to find teams to work with. Prospective team members could post blurbs about themselves, include links to their social media profiles, and launch team chats within Slack. Volunteers also scouted various channels for GovHack members who wanted to join teams but needed guidance and then connected the members to teams that needed teammates. The #mentor-help channel helped connect team members to mentors. 

“I can’t imagine running GovHack without Slack,” says Bryson. “There would have been a lot of phone calls to handle without the Slack channels. And the feedback from participants was exceptionally goodthey enjoyed using Slack.”


Staying on top of service alerts with Slack notifications

During the weekend-long all-virtual event, with participants busily working in their web hackerspaces, volunteer leaders had to push out news about system availability. Matthew Watt, the deputy chair of GovHack, created a #status channel linked to core services like  Slack and Zoom; the alerts would post in the Slack channel so volunteer leaders and participants would know quickly if there was a service issue. With fast alerts, volunteers could find alternative approaches when issues cropped up with registration and alert GovHack members about workarounds. 

“Being able to receive and track service notifications in one Slack channel was a big help to us,” says Watt. “We didn’t have to worry about checking multiple services, which saved us time.”

“Being able to receive and track service notifications in one Slack channel was a big help to us. We didn’t have to worry about checking multiple services, which saved us time.”

Matthew Watt Deputy Chair, GovHack

Setting the stage for GovHack 2021

Although the 2020 hackathon has ended, teams are still hacking away, using Slack to put the final touches on their projects and sharing ideas with teammates. While the team interactions go on, GovHack’s volunteer leaders are already sketching out plans for the 2021 event, anticipating that it will be a mix of real-world and virtual meetups, with Slack once again serving as the communications hub for the event. Even without in-person meetups this year, participants were happy with the hackathon, mostly rating it 4 stars out of 5. 

“We’re locked into Slack,” Bryson says. “There’s no need for us to change, because we got such positive feedback from everyone using it. Nothing else would be as intuitive and easy for everyone to use, from the members and project participants on up to us.”

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