Report on the Will’s World Online Hack Event (Part 3/5) – Event

Ready, steady, hack!

This post is the third part of our reflections on the organisation of an online hack for the Will’s World project. The first post looked at the planning and the second post at the promotion for the event.

After 8 weeks of planning and much anticipation, the launch day of Will’s World Online hack finally arrived!

Format and hangouts

The format selected was a week-long event starting with a live, interactive opening session to introduce the data, the goal of the event, prize categories, social media tools and technologies, participants and hack ideas. A similar live session closed the event with the presentation of the hacks and prizes. Additional daily sessions were scheduled during the week to foster regular interaction and, we hoped, collaboration between the participants.

Google+ Hangout was used for all live sessions. It is a free video conferencing tool allowing up to 9 participants to join a call and (optionally) live streaming and archiving to YouTube. This live-streaming and archiving functionality was a key factor in our selection of this tool, as it enables an unlimited number of people to view the meeting live on YouTube without actively taking part, and creates a very accessible and sharable copy after the event. Most other video conference software we considered, such as Skype, are less flexible for streaming or archiving.

The recording facility ensured that the video of each session was available to view on YouTube straight after the end of the meeting. We were keen to make use of this for two reasons, first, to promote flexibility and to give the opportunity to participants who couldn’t make the meeting to catch up at a later time; and second, to document the hack and build a library of videos that captured the event as it took place.

Most participants already had a Google email address that they could use to access Google+ but few of them had used the Hangout facility. However, it is easy to set up, only requiring the installation of a browser plug-in, and was relatively easy to use both from a meeting organiser and participant point of view. Most participants were able to join the meeting simply by following the step-by-step instructions circulated ahead of the event. A couple of help enquiries were received but quickly solved. It should also be noted that where we did encounter teething issues with Google+ our participants were very patient and forgiving of issues around our experimentation with these technologies.

The schedule of the opening session was chosen to enable as many participants as possible to join. Most participants were located in the UK but a few were based in mainland Europe and the USA. We chose to hold the session at 1pm (GMT), or 2pm (CET), 8am (EST), 7am (CST) and 5am (PST), to enable people participating in their own time to either join during lunch time or before being at work. Live sessions were not compulsory and no prior registration was required to join a session which meant that we had no indication of how many people would attend. This added to the anticipation – particularly on the first day! The opening session saw four participants actively joining the hangout and one watching in addition to the four project team members.

During this session we presented an introduction to both the Will’s World Project and the Shakespeare Registry to be used during the hack. Participants were encouraged to introduce themselves and put forward ideas. Participants were invited to hack at any time that suited them during the week. They were also encouraged to form teams and to use the wiki, twitter and the mailing list to advertise for wanted and offered skills.

To ensure all participants were given the best start on the first day of the hack, we held a second live session at 5pm (GMT), or 6pm (CET), 12 noon (EST), 11am (CST) and 9am (PST), to offer an alternative time for people not able to attend the earlier session which covered the same practical information as the opening session. This second session was attended by one active participant and one additional viewer.

Further daily hangouts were planned during the week to provide regular drop-in sessions for participants to raise an issue, query, discuss ideas and the progress of their hacks; and for the project team to provide any updates, help or feedback on the Shakespeare Registry. These sessions were planned for 1pm (GMT) every day. We chose to hold these at the same time every day to make it easier to remember and provide consistency. Although, we considered holding the sessions at a different time every day to cater for different working patterns and time zones, we decided against this to avoid participants having to remember a complex schedule. Instead, we offered to change the time of the daily session to any other suggested time by the participants and to hold additional sessions on demand at any specific time. Participants were happy with the 1pm sessions and no other time or additional sessions were requested. On Friday, ahead of the weekend and what was likely to be a busy hacking time, we held one additional session at 5pm to support the participants.

On the final day, a closing session was planned for the presentation of the hacks and the awarding of the prizes. Following the presentations, the judges left the hangout session to join a separate, private session to deliberate while the participants were able to share their experience of the hack in the main session. The quality of the hacks was impressive and the jury took slightly longer than planned to decide the prizes. Instead of keeping the original hangout live, a separate hangout session was started to announce the prizes.

The turnouts for the Google+ Hangout sessions were:

Team Members Active Participants Viewers Total
Opening session 4 4 1 9
Day 1, 5pm 4 1 1 6
Day 2, 1pm 4 1 3 8
Day 3, 1pm 4 0 1 5
Day 3, 5pm 3 1 0 4
Day 4, 5pm 2 0 0 2
Day 5, 1pm 2 3 1 6
Day 6, 1pm 4 3 1 8
Day 7, 1pm 4 3 1 8
Hack Presentations 4 8 4 16
Prize giving 4 4 1 9

The scheduling of the sessions was probably the most challenging aspect: the number of session needed and the best time for these was largely a guess. We had low attendance for some of the sessions, in particular over the weekend, indicating that either the time wasn’t convenient or simply that there wasn’t a need for that many sessions. It may be the case that the online format promotes independent work, with individuals happy to hack on their own without needing much input and therefore fewer hangouts may have been better.

We were very impressed with the Google+ Hangout facility. It was easy to use, very effective and the broadcast and streaming facilities remarkable. We would however advise caution as on one occasion, active participation to the hangout was made public by mistake instead of being restricted to the invited participants. Soon enough, an unwelcome guest treated us to some unwanted behaviour and had to be swiftly blocked from the hangout!


The data is obviously at the core of the hack. The Shakespeare Registry was released a couple of days before the hack and more data were added during the event itself.  The Registry gives access to metadata for over 1.6 million Shakespeare related online resources, as well as marked XML for the plays, metadata schemas, search and documentation on the APIs. The content of the Registry is very eclectic, including text, pictures, movies and audio based on Shakespeare, his life, his work, his time and any interpretation of these. Participants were free to use as much or as little data from the Registry as they liked,and to combine it with other data sources. This resulted in very different hacks, some academic, some playful, some technical and some visual.

Releasing the Registry earlier, which would have allowed participants to make themselves familiar with the data prior to the event, would have been preferable and might have resulted in more participation in the hack itself. However, the presence of our developers at the Hangout sessions and their availability via email, Twitter and IRC did mean that hack participants had very good access to support, help and further information on the data and registry throughout the week.


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