Volunteers from Nascent, MaRs and the Hacking Health team

I recently reached out to founder Sahadeva Hammari to talk about his tool Collabfinder, which brings people with different skill-sets together to tackle projects, and we ended up having a conversation about starting hackathons. Saha had some questions about my recent experience on the coordination side of Hacking Health, and he was gracious enough to take notes, which I’ve edited and shared here.

Both Collabfinder and hackathons share the common interest of facilitating projects and collaborations, but there is a lot that happens behind the scenes that can remain closed off to participants and other event organizers. With so many hackathons right around the corner here in Toronto (see the bottom of this post), even talk of doing a cancer-themed hackathon, it is definitely a time to share knowledge as well as question the value of these events. As my friend Nadine said today:

“Is it me or does everyone have a hack-athon now? its like un-conferences in 2007.”

Last year I wrote about my experience at Startup Weekend, where I wondered whether we really needed more real estate apps. Despite the pessimism in that post, I was inspired by the Startup Weekend team and appreciate the fact that they work hard to bring people together. I also realize much is up to the individuals for the kinds of projects we choose to work on, but there are certain things we can do as organizers to facilitate meaningful work.

Am happy to share a few more thoughts below.

Saha: How did you get the word out to designers, developers and healthcare experts?

Me: Having a large, existing support network helps (we work in a large hospital and have many contacts in the community). We worked hard to build a core group of interested people and let the message loose on Twitter. The event spread quickly online through social channels.

Who were the mentors involved? What role did they play and how did you find them?

Both designers and clinicians acted as mentors to shepard ideas through product development. We had people familiar with healthcare as well as investors and business experts. They helped during the conference and some continue to have relationships with the hackers after the event is over. One of the valuable moments was during pitch night when one of the mentors stood up afterward and pointed out all the projects already in development in other places that perhaps these entrepreneurs didn’t know about.

How did you find and sell partners on the event? Did they cover the costs?

It was definitely an expensive event as far as grassroots go (in the tens of thousands) but the sponsorship outreach was pretty effective. The other major partners, especially those that helped with overall coordination, seemed to go straight to the Hacking Health founders. They could attach themselves to the cause and it was really for the love of the cause that we all put so many hours in.

How were the hackathon participants involved online before they met one another? How did you encourage them to use the online tools?

For the most part participants didn’t know one another prior to the event (I’m sure there were exceptions to this, relationships and interactions we didn’t see). Healthcare folks posted their project ideas to Sparkboard (a tool built internally by Hacking Health) along with the skills they needed to build those projects. Sparkboard was essential as a guide. Developers and designers could also post small profiles to Sparkboard and describe their skills, but this was less common.

A few weeks prior to the hackathon we also organized a meetup where participants could come ask questions and hear a sample pitch. This was useful to get the conversation started.

Two of our design volunteers, Mona Shah and Joanne Wong, hacking away

How did you facilitate teams coming together to work on ideas? How did that play out? Were there any surprises or things you would change?

Teams had the potential to meet other members at the meetup, but for the most part those who pitched an idea on the first night were responsible for bringing a team together, so that turned into a big networking event. At one point we rang a bell and had those teams already formed move to one side of the room, while those still looking for a team or members moved to the left. It was split pretty evenly.

We considered encouraging people to speak to at least three teams before making a decision to join one, but we had this idea a little too late in the process. Sparkboard was a good tool to build teams even into the first day of the hackathon, which was a little late.

The design advisors table, photo by @mud

I also helped organize a group of designer advisors/mentors there for all the teams to access. There were about twenty-five of us throughout the weekend. This was very popular. Designers embedded deeply into a team still had access to other designers to bounce their ideas off of and get feedback from, something designers don’t often get at a hackathon. And teams without any design resources could use us as well, which was the more common scenario.

Teams recognized the value of having designer mentors and used them. The most successful projects were when designers were involved in the entire process, from stating the problem to helping execute the final solution.

Why did designers have a role as mentors and advisors at the design table, not as full-time team members?


Getting designers out to a hackathon is no easy feat, but pitching it as an opportunity to hang out with other designers and be treated as “experts” is pretty effective. That gets them out to the event and once they’re there, they end up having a great time and really getting into the work. Alternatively, if someone is having a bad time, they have the option to come back to the table and work on a different project or have support from peers.

Website designed by @thepeej, built over the weekend

App screens designed by @ghostpressbed

There were also many skill levels amongst designers. Some could assist but weren’t experts. Experts seemed like they could do the most good by being a general resource for other designers and teams, and it helped to have one or two people that could identify the needs within the teams and allocate design resources based on that and our designers’ availabilities.

What kind of post-event management occurred? Did the participants continue building their apps after the event?

The prizes given to attendees and winners were deliberately chosen to help those winners continue the development of their projects (i.e. office space, mentorship, access to funding channels.) We also are planning a follow-up event to support those teams and have more networking. That will be November 30 at MaRs.

How much of the event’s success can we attribute to Canadians being so awesome and nice?

Not much, actually! The fact that the hackathon was about healthcare was a big part of it. Everyone has experience with the healthcare system and knows how much it sucks at times. I also think the fact that the projects were clinician-led helped. This wasn’t just people hacking on whatever, it was teams being able to work with people who could understood the problems from the ground level and could actually take their projects and have an immediate effect on healthcare. One student behind the WoundMeasure app said she would begin using the app they built over the weekend in her clinic the following Monday.

The WoundMeasure logo designed at Hacking Health by @britburger

So, in general, the theme of the hackathon, the online component that got ideas out in the open and made it easier to team up, the pre-hackathon meetup that introduced attendees to the process, and the involvement of designers as advisors and guides were all essential to the success of the hackathon.

Anything else?

I just want to reiterate that one of the clearest things we can do is have a specific reason for why we are hacking. My new buddies JJ and Shaharris are behind Canada’s first AngelHack (in Toronto) and they told me that although they are working with an international brand, they are not getting paid; they are putting in the work of organizing this event to bring exposure to the Toronto startup scene, which is something worth celebrating. I’m certain this is true of most hackathon organizers – we do it because we want to see change.

After Hacking Health, I believe the way to go is to target niche causes and niche populations. This is just one thing we can do to make hackathons fun and useful for everyone, and it may be a reason we are seeing more hackathons popping up around the city.

Some upcoming hackathons in Toronto:

Thanks again Saha for capturing our call!