Hackathon as a knowledge building process


This article will be particularly challenging to write. I would like to reflect a little bit on hackathon as a process during which our understanding of a  particular topic is being built. It is very fluid but somehow fascinating. I will try and let’s hope you can follow my thoughts’ train…

Probably the most important thing to mention at the beginning is that we are very free when it comes to the outcomes of our project. Of course, we hope it is going to be useful and we believe, our effort is happening for something. But how concrete they will be, how they will look like, how we want to communicate them, this is completely in our hands. 

Organizers had done an excellent job preparing for us toolkits that can be used in every stage of our project’s development. We have had mentoring sessions with wonderful mentors, Eevi Saarikoski and Robynn McPherson from Effort and also with the mentor from our partnership organisation, Naisasialiitto Unioni. All of them have been helping us to see our project in a different light and also remembering us to stay realistic in expectations. This is especially important for me, as I tend to think big. But as one of my team colleagues pointed out: “If the United Nations haven’t yet resolved the issue of surrogacy, we won’t do it either.” 

The most fascinating process so far is for me, how we built upon each other’s experience, knowledge and point of views. Even listening to other groups who are dealing with completely different tasks, can show me some views that I haven’t even thought about.  

The traditional teamwork would probably be about some concrete distribution of tasks, the concrete ownership of the knowledge, or aiming towards more described and more precisely defined aims. The funny thing is that we don’t have anything of this. We still don’t even know what our final “product” would look like. The only thing we know for sure is that we are supposed to observe and touch the topic of surrogacy from as many perspectives as possible and to have a solid argumentation’s basis ready for our partner NGO.  

What such a collaborative approach might look like? We are a team of 4 people. Colleague 1 made a chart where she started to brainstorm ideas connected with the topic of reproductive justice. Colleague 2 made a chart with different feministic opinions on surrogacy. Colleague 3 came up with the idea to have a chat with her friend who knows a lot about the topic. So we did it. Colleague 4 came up with particular case studies. Colleague 1 started to list different legal regulations into the diagram and connect them with possible scenarios. Colleague 2 made a legend on how to stick issues from different areas to the pre-described categories. Somebody else made another graph on how she sees intersectionality from all the things I had mentioned above. Somebody else said: “Very helpful graph, what if I use the same dimensions for different involved parties.” Somebody else started to write down terms that we have to re-define. And so on…

We all listen to each other and constantly challenge our opinions with the opinions of our peers. We end up meetings rarely with any super strict tasks… I mostly see it as a space to observe where others came in their thoughts and how I can continue my thoughts from my “at the moment” position. Some of us just do what we find important. We make some visualizations or just write down some questions that are teasing us. It is very free, but somehow very productive. I am strongly persuaded that I would not have come with some ideas just by myself if I hadn’t seen my colleagues work before. It would also not happen if there is a strongly hierarchical structure within the team or strict guidelines to follow. We can speak freely. Who we are is very important from the position of what we are bringing to the discussion. 

The fact that we are a very different bunch of people is challenging and refreshing at the same time. Of course, everyone has their style of doing things. Somebody needs to read more, somebody needs to discuss, somebody loves visualizations, somebody prefers more structure in the process, somebody is fine to work freely… We hadn’t known each other before the hackathon, so we had to adapt quickly to each other’s style. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible. Sharing and listening are crutial.

Does it even make sense what I am trying to describe? Sorry if not… This whole process is organic, somehow free, but still focused. I can’t even say why, but it reminds me of the old video game, Tetris. The task was to fit the differently shaped falling objects into the best possible positions and gaps in the already built wall… And it is also OK if the object is being placed into a completely non-perfect position. By that, you learn a lot too.

So yap, the hackathon is something like Tetris, but much more complex and much better. And because I can’t describe it, feel free to interpret it as it suits you 🙂 

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