Hacking the pandemic

Grassroots groups and governments around the world are hosting sprint-style hackathons in Slack to find solutions

Author: Seth Putnam22nd June 2020Illustration by Kelsey Wroten

As governments shut down their countries in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, technologists sprang into action almost immediately.

Grassroots groups and governments around the world started hosting sprint-style hackathons with one goal in mind: to use the power of the internet to address the pandemic’s far-reaching effects. Among those challenges? Saving lives, helping businesses stay afloat and reimagining the future of work.

These movements quickly picked up steam and began to transcend municipalities and countries, inspiring continent-wide efforts to use technology for good. From Australia to the U.S. to the European Union, here’s how three competitions set out to combat the virus by solving urgent problems—and how they used Slack to make collaboration easier.

#flattenthecurvehack, Australia

Tackling urgent problems in Asia Pacific

In its largest-ever hackathon, dubbed #flattenthecurvehack, the Australian Computer Society asked participants to solve challenges exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis across five areas: education, health systems, protecting vulnerable populations, the future of work, and wellness and mental health.

Unless it’s organized well, a hackathon can be like the Wild West, with participants galloping to explore every potential frontier with little or no structure. This particular event drew upward of 2,700 users from diverse professional backgrounds—who had just two days to craft and pitch their ideas—so organizers set up a Slack workspace a week in advance to lay out clear guidelines and connect participants.

Rather than leading with the event challenge, organizers eased participants in with a handful of introductory announcement channels, virtual places where teams can collaborate and share files and tools. The channels helped users build rapport, share their skill sets and learn the competition rules. “You want the 48 hours that’s designated for the hackathon to be when people are actually doing their work,” says Kellie Kennedy, a digital experience designer for the ACS. “We try to get teams forming, norming and storming out of the way before the hackathon starts online.”


Once the event kicked off, channels were set up for each challenge and team. Event organizers, subject-matter experts and mentors, who identified themselves with custom emoji and badges in their user profiles, cruised the channels for opportunities to provide support and feedback.

“With Slack, participants had all of these resources at their fingertips, and they met so many different people. We learned that you can still create a vibe online; you don’t have to be in a physical space.”

Kellie KennedyDigital Experience Designer, Australian Computer Society

In the end, 43 organizations partnered with ACS—including the Australian government, IBM, the Australian Cyber Security Growth Network, and Slack—to review 140 submissions ranging from the creation of virtual learning spaces to an app that gamifies social distancing.

Although it was ACS’s first fully virtual hackathon, the online format opened the door to new participants. “The dynamic of the hackathon this time wasn’t just about hackers and developers,” Kennedy says. “It was about the whole community.” In some ways, she observes, the online event was more powerful than it might have been in person. “With Slack, participants had all of these resources at their fingertips, and they met so many different people. We learned that you can still create a vibe online; you don’t have to be in a physical space.”

Pandemic Response Hackathon, U.S.

How Datavant merged tech and public health

A sweeping health crisis like Covid-19 calls for a proportionate health solution. As the pandemic spread across the globe, voices in Silicon Valley began calling for solutions. To that end, San Francisco–based Datavant, a health-care technology company focused on data connectivity, joined forces with health-care professionals to create a problem-solving hive mind with its Pandemic Response Hackathon.

“Slack enabled our participants to self-organize for the weekend in an organic, casual way.”

Sarah RoweHead of marketing, Datavant

Datavant surveyed health experts to identify specific problems and developed more than 100 hackathon project ideas. The organizers then recruited some 1,500 engineers and 500 professionals with public health backgrounds to join the hackathon. “Our intention was to bring together two communities that wouldn’t normally interact,” says Sarah Rowe, the head of marketing at Datavant. “You had people who work in very technical roles at Amazon Web Services joining teams with emergency medicine doctors to try to come up with solutions.”

To connect these disparate groups, Datavant opted to use Slack. “It’s a very intuitive tool with a tiny bit of explanation about what channels are and direct-messaging etiquette,” Rowe says. “Slack enabled our participants to self-organize for the weekend in an organic, casual way.”

The organizers set up a #findteammates channel to group participants based on their interests and abilities. Users were encouraged to post a short intro with their background and interests so a Datavant organizer could recommend channels for them to join. “If someone posted, ‘I’m super-interested in working on plans for a DIY ventilator,’ we directed them to the Slack channel that was most relevant,” Rowe says.

The #findteammates Slack channel from Datavant's Pandemic Response Hackathon

The Datavant team also used Slack channels as a substitute for office hours. “Because it was a virtual hackathon, we weren’t able to put the mentors in a room and say, ‘Go knock on their door,’ ” Rowe says. In lieu of in-person consultations, Datavent created dedicated Slack channels for its co-hosting organizations, such as Amazon Web Services and Snowflake, and volunteer mentors. Participants were encouraged to drop in and ask questions. “One of the benefits of Slack was that these channels became great collections of resources and content, which new participants could search and read through,” she says.

Judges ultimately selected 18 projects to spotlight on the hackathon website, but the organizers don’t intend for the ideas to end there. Datavant maintained select team channels after the closing ceremony. “We’ve worked with teams that have chosen to pursue their projects further,” Rowe says. “Today, there’s at least one project where the participants met on Slack at the hackathon for the first time and now have a live, fully developed product solving real problems.”

EU vs. the virus

A pan-European hacking challenge

Building off the successful German event #WirvsVirus (We vs. Virus), The Hackathon Company leveled up the following month with #EUvsVirus. Working in direct partnership with the European Commission, the organization solicited ideas from multinational teams across a gamut of disciplines. The goal: “to connect civil society, innovators, partners and investors across Europe in order to develop innovative solutions for coronavirus-related challenges.”

Oliver Brümmer, the CEO of The Hackathon Company, says Slack was critical for keeping teams organized. “Scalability was one of the biggest challenges that we had,” he says. “With Slack we found the perfect platform for the implementation, since the tool is based on organizing communication in different channels, which in our case were the different subject areas.”

With channels, participants could easily browse and join projects. Each channel provided a running archive of ideas selected, decisions made and progress achieved, making it possible for new team members to get up to speed quickly.

By the time the event wrapped, the hackathon had attracted more than 2,000 teams from 32 different countries. Because of the large number of participants (more than 21,000), the organizers decided to set up three separate Slack workspaces to manage the event:

  • A private workspace for organizers to coordinate behind the scenes
  • A collaborative workspace for both organizers and high-level partners, such as experts, curators and moderators, involved in running the event
  • A public workspace for all participants to pitch and execute ideas

Over the course of the hackathon, 15,327 users in the public workspace spun up 5,083 channels and exchanged a whopping 426,727 messages. Those exchanges resulted in thousands of innovative ideas. The European Commission and a jury of experts selected 120 winning teams to move forward with their solutions. Those teams were later matched with universities, companies, investors, accelerators, venture capitalists and grant-making organizations that could provide funding to make the proposals a reality.

By nature, a hackathon is a mad dash, frequently over the course of a single weekend. But the ideas generated in these friendly competitions often have the legs to keep running into the future. For that reason, many of these events’ organizers decided to keep their Slack workspaces live to provide a place for teams to continue iterating on their potentially world-altering ideas.

“All of the collaboration and working together and sharing that was happening within Slack definitely helped to create a sense of community that people wanted to maintain even after the event was over,” Rowe says. “To us, that was a huge part of what made it successful.”

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