By: Jane Koh

A Novel Year of Virtual Hackweeks

In early March 2020, as the dimensions of the Covid-19 pandemic started to become clear, the Waterhackweek organizing team was only three weeks out from hosting its in-person event when they made the tough decision to postpone the hackweek until August. They joined several other hackweeks, all faced with the challenge of figuring out how to move their in-person events entirely online. Until now, the hackweeks thrived as highly interactive, participant-driven events that aimed to create opportunities for networking and community building. The different hackweek organizing committees wondered, is it possible to create a continually collaborative and engaging virtual environment that also sustains connections between communities of researchers?

To begin answering this question, Data Science Fellows Anthony Arendt and Daniela Huppenkothen formed a Remote Hackweek Working Group in which organizers across all disciplines gathered to discuss their plans for upcoming events, debrief past events, and share advice and lessons learned from their experiences. The group also helped motivate a proposal that led to a grant from the Sloan Foundation, enabling eScience to hire a facilitator and evaluator who helped design more inclusive and welcoming spaces for hackweeks in an online forum.

Each hackweek echoed things that worked in previous hackweeks, while incorporating its own variations depending on budget, remaining planning time, and priorities. For instance, the ICESat-2 hackweek continued using Zoom solely for its project groups, which entailed setting up ongoing meetings in over a dozen host accounts. Oceanhackweek decided to use the video conferencing feature of the slack messaging app for its group projects, together with group-driven alternatives such as Zoom. Waterhackweek took it a step further in using QiqoChat, a Zoom wrapper, that allowed for different rooms to be added or removed on the fly depending on the schedule for the day. Qiqochat came in especially handy for flexible formation of project groups and late sign ups of participants wanting to share their work in floating tutorials. Although the platform was an extra expense and added to the already large load of tools there were to juggle, participants eventually eased into using it and enjoyed being able to see who was occupying what spaces at any given time.

Zoom fatigue was common across all hackweeks as attendees found themselves logged on for hours on end, even with scheduled breaks for participants to connect informally with each other and the instructors. There is something about the virtual setting that makes it more challenging for people to step away and take real breaks. It helped that some of the hackweek schedules had times blocked and cued separately for office hours and breaks. 

Many organizers and participants also felt overwhelmed by the amount of tools there were to juggle. Just a handful of the commonly used tools included GitHub, Slack, Zoom, Google Drive, Sched, and Wonder. Some hackweeks offered pre-hackweek sessions to get participants oriented with these tools ahead of time. Yet all the tools still did not provide all the features needed to completely imitate an in-person collaboration. For example, participants shared frustrations in having to take turns sharing their screens in zoom meeting rooms. 

Moreover, the attendees were spread out over different time zones. In determining the optimal time to host some of the events, I found myself plugging in different cities of participants into a time zone converter to find what time would allow for most participants to attend during daytime hours. There were some participant locations that were unfortunately too globally dispersed to work with, but even then, many of these participants were so committed that they temporarily rearranged their lives in order to make it work. One Oceanhackweek participant in Australia camped out in a caravan in his driveway to attend Zoom sessions throughout the night as his family slept. We did what we could to accommodate by uploading tutorials the day they were recorded to provide more viewing flexibility. We also had the participants list their time zone conversions when signing up for project groups so they could take these into account. 

While helping organize several hackweeks, I have learned that each hackweek implements its own unique priorities into the planning process. Waterhackweek lead and Senior Research Scientist Christina Bandarogoda puts an emphasis on trying to bring in participants from underprivileged communities. In order to do so, we’ve tried different approaches of seeking and providing sponsorships for participating researchers. In corresponding with accepted participants, I have seen numerous researchers regretfully drop out of participating due to lack of funding. By moving our event online we eliminated any need for travel, and many people who initially declined due to lack of funding requested to be added back in for the online version. 

It was evident in the debrief for each hackweek that the virtual experience unanimously exceeded expectations. Emilio Mayoga, Senior Oceanographer and Oceanhackweek lead, commented after all of the Oceanhackweek project presentations that just as much seemed to be accomplished by project teams online as had been before in person. Ariel Rokem and Tal Yarkoni, the organizers of NeuroHackademy, decided to open up the event to anyone who was interested in participating, while also scaling down the scope of the event to tutorial offerings and talks, in tandem with Slack. They were pleasantly surprised to see between 200 and 300 participants log on each day and projects forming organically via Slack. 

Some organizers liked the online format so much that they discussed the possibilities of offering a hybrid online and in-person hackweek in the future. However, from what I have observed while coordinating on the logistics end, trying to incorporate a hybrid could potentially present unequal access to some participants. During in-person events, I have seen the networking, collaboration, and discussions extend beyond the lecture halls and penciled in times for hacking. Participants carry these conversations into breakfasts and lunches gathered around speakers, while standing around in noisy foyers during coffee breaks, and late into evenings sprawled around lounge areas of lodging halls. These are opportunities that online participants would automatically lose out on taking part in as they wait at their computers in separate time zones for peers to come back online. In its past in-person events, Oceanhackweek had an inclusive approach that worked well in which they made lectures live for anyone to watch and ask questions while the hacking portion was restricted only to participants physically present. 

There are many pros and cons to hosting a hackweek entirely in person or online. Although current global circumstances leave us no other choice but to adapt to the online environment for the time being, hackweek organizers can assess their priorities to help decide what sort of format will best suit them when we are back to having both options.