Report on the Will’s World Online Hack Event (Part 4/5) – Hacking

This post is the fourth part of our reflections on the organisation of an online hack for the Will’s World project.  The first post looked at the planning, the second post at the promotion  and the third post at the format of the event. Today’s post focuses on what happened during the hack – how we communicated, what hacking took place and what excited our judges…


A lot of thought and effort was put into communication during the event. Email, IRC and social media technologies were used to keep in touch with the participants, in an effort to reach them in their favourite forum.

In particular we provided:

  • A Daily reminder of the Hangout sessions and connection information provided on Google+ and tweeted.
  • A video of each live session was posted on YouTube straight after the end of the session.
  • A daily summary of the daily hangout, news and progress of the day was emailed to the participant mailing list, posted on the project blog and updated on the event wiki.  These included links to the videos recorded that day and made available on YouTube: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5, Day 6, Day 7, Presentations and Prizes.
  • IRC channel, Twitter account and event email were monitored throughout to answer any query and moderate discussion.
  • Personal contact was made by email with all registered participants who did not actively participate during the first couple of days to check that there were no access or technical issues and to encourage them to be more actively involved.
  • The team posted photos of their hack space on Pinterest to encourage participants to share their own setups.

In addition, the wiki required regular updates about organisational aspects during the event itself, for example, to add details of participants that registered during the hack, announce the prizes and members of the judging panel, the registered hack and documenting the latest addition to the Registry.

Image of the Google+ Community for the Will's World Hack

The Google+ Community for the Will’s World Hack

Keeping an active presence on so many social media sites proved time-consuming but did enable participants who may have missed some of the daily developments to catch up at a later time. These project updates, comments and shared materials also provide a very well documented record of the interactions which took place during the project.

At an in-person event participants typically communicate their own progress with the group – often through ad hoc check ins . The online and somewhat asynchronous nature of this event meant that the Will’s World team frequently acted as collector and curator of progress, updates, calls for help, etc. so that these could be shared with participants. In retrospect  this also had a significant impact on the time required to support the hack.


Similarly to in-person hacks, some participants were effective and active communicators throughout the week whilst others worked away in the background, sharing their hack at the very end of the event. Like traditional events not all of those who registered chose to turn up or to actively participate – although this was a minority of those registered for the hackathon several of whom contacted us to indicate last minute changes in schedules and commitments.

Although a great deal of discussion did take place amongst participants, and between the participants and the project team, it was somewhat disappointing that only one team was successfully formed. Individual hacks are of course very common, even at in-person hackathons where they often outnumber team hacks, but we had hoped for more collaboration between participants.  It seems that social media did not, for our participants,  adequately replace the informal face-to-face interaction needed for people to connect, build teams, overcome their inhibitions and offer or seek skills. Although it may have been that those people attracted to take part in an online hack may have been more keen in the technological aspects of the hack and/or in the data itself whilst those attracted to in-person events may be more keen to work collaboratively because they see the event as a social event or opportunity to meet and learn from others.

Several academics and literature specialists got in touch during the feasibility survey and we were hoping that some of them would participate in the hack event, sharing their expertise with participants whose expertise was more related to technology and coding. The online format of the event and emphasis on social media may have been a factor in the subject experts choosing to not take an active part in the event, although they may also not have been clear on how to take part. Joining an in-person hack is certainly less technically demanding – you can just show up and begin to find a role without having to engage with multiple logins etc. However even at in-person hack events engaging subject experts, and articulating the value and role of these non-developer participants, can be challenging.

Prizes and Judges

During the planning of the event we knew that we wanted the jury to be external to the project and include representatives both from the cultural and Shakespeare world, and from the technology and developer community, to provide a balanced judgement on what would make a good hack for the Will’s World project.

We contacted the British Museum and Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). Both had held significant Shakespeare celebrations in the past year, with the British Museum holding the exhibition: Shakespeare: Staging the World over the summer; and the RSC holding the World Shakespeare Festival between April and September 2012 as part of the London 2012 Festival, the culmination of the Cultural Olympiad. For the technical judges, we turned to established hacking organisations: Culture Hack Scotland and Developer Community Supporting Innovation (DevCSI).

Our jury consisted of:

  • Sarah Ellis from the Royal Shakespeare Company
  • Erin Maguire from Culture Hack Scotland
  • Mahendra Mahey from DevCSI

Unfortunately, a last minute diary conflict meant that our British Museum judge was unable to join the final presentation session.

We had a generous £1,000 prize money available to reward the efforts of our hackers. Amazon vouchers were chosen for their universal appeal, their availability in various currencies which could be chosen according to the location of the winners, and their ideal fit with the online format as they can be emailed to the winners.

Five prize categories were identified:

  • Best Set Up (£50) to reward photos of participants’ hack environments.
  • Best Presentation (£100) to recognise the most engaging and effective communication of participants’ hacks/ideas.
  • Best Shakespeare Hack (£100) to reward the best hack “in the spirit of Shakespeare”.
  • Best Open Hack (£250) to reward the best hack for Open Access (open sources and open data).
  • Best Overall Hack (£500)

In addition, the RSC kindly gifted an amazing Shakespeare goodie bag to each winner full of lovely bard-related collectibles.

Royal Shakespeare Company stamps

Royal Shakespeare Company stamps and First Day Cover, part of the goodie bag provided by the RSC.

Mahendra Mahey from DevCSI was very helpful in sharing his experience of organising and judging hackathons ahead of the event. A set of rules for submitting hack were drawn up and made available on the wiki. These were very useful in clarifying the scope of the hack, in particular the fact that concepts, ideas and demonstrators were valid entries, the hack was not only about creating prototypes or applications. These rules also stated deadlines for the submission of titles, hacks and presentations in an attempt to encourage hackers to register their intentions to submit early. However, these were not adhered to and there were last minute submissions – not too unexpected from a community known for working late at night and right up to the deadline!


Following much anticipation and a couple of last-minute entries, the line-up of submitted hacks was impressive. We had nine entries ranging from the concept to simulated application, from the very technical to the fun and visual. The full list of submitted hacks is available on the wiki. Participants were asked to either present their hack live during the closing session on Google+ Hangout or to submit a pre-recorded presentation. There were six live presentations, two pre-recorded presentations and one by proxy.

Google+ Hangout worked amazingly well for the presentations. On top of the live videos of the participants, it allows screen sharing which meant presenters could easily switch between talking, slide shows and software demonstrations. Showing pre-recorded videos was (theoretically) similarly easy but we encountered some screen freezing issues with one of the larger presentations.

The quality and diversity of the hacks meant the jury had their work cut-out for them. After an hour of deliberation, the panel had agreed the winners and these were awarded in the last Hangout session. They were:

  • Best Set Up – Neil Mayo
  • Best Presentation – Kate Ho & Tom Salyers
  • Best Shakespeare Hack – Richard Wincewicz
  • Best Open Hack – Owen Stephens
  • Best Overall Hack – Kate Ho & Tom Salyers

More details on the winning hacks can be found in this post.

We were hugely impressed with the amount of work that had taken place, and with the imagination and quality of the hacks that were produced during the week. Some of the hacks did not, however, specifically fit into any of the prize categories and it was felt that an additional of “best technical hack” or “hack with the most potential” would have helped in rewarding extremely valuable efforts.


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