Students Share Tips on Moving Annual Hackathon Online

May 5, 2020

By UCLA Samueli Newsroom
Computer science majors Rebecca Xu and Sriram Balachandran, co-executive directors of LA Hacks, had to transition the hackathon to a virtual environment — no easy feat.

More than 1,000 students gathered virtually on the weekend of March 27-29, 2020 for the eighth anniversary of LA Hacks. The annual hackathon engages high school, undergraduate and graduate students in one common goal — improving the quality of life in Southern California. Projects were created with one of four “tracks” in mind: Under Construction (Like Always), which focused on navigating LA’s urban environment, Trending Now, which addressed LA’s entertainment scene, Code Green, which centered sustainability and Quaranteam, which targeted the COVID-19 pandemic.

From 11 p.m. that Friday to 11 a.m. on Sunday, hackers worked to finish and submit their project. Throughout the 36-hour event, multiple workshops and panels were held, via Zoom webinars, that were open to the public. Similar to many event-organizers scrambling to adjust their plans to adapt to the changing times, Xu, a junior, and Balachandran, a sophomore, shared their experience and offered tips for other student organizations.

When did you realize that LA Hacks would likely have to transition to a virtual event? How did you feel at that moment? How did the team start planning for the transition?
We realized towards the beginning of March that LA Hacks would most likely be going virtual. Sriram and I, as well as the other team directors, monitored the COVID-19 situation in California and in the U.S. during that time, and some other events that were scheduled to be held around the same time had gone partially virtual. Because of this, we realized the situation would only become more dire and that it was more of a question of when we would announce the virtualization rather than if. In order to give our organizing team ample time for restructuring the event, we decided to go virtual as soon as we could. Of course, it was disappointing for both the organizers as well as our participants, but this was the only way we could keep ourselves, our participants and the general UCLA community safe. Despite the virtualization, both the team as well as our hackers were completely understanding of the situation and supportive of the decision.

What are some of the obstacles you encountered?
LA Hacks had never gone virtual before, and while there are a few virtual hackathons that happen on a regular basis, the majority of them are corporate-based or invite-only. No other in-person hackathon in recent history had gone fully virtual in such a short timespan before, so there was a plethora of logistics that we had to think through with little to no reference material. We wanted to ensure that, despite the virtualization, LA Hacks 2020 would be just as enjoyable as any past LA Hacks and that our hackers would be able to have that collaborative environment from the comfort of their home. Marketing would also play an enormous role during a virtual hackathon as well, so we needed to make sure that we were advertising our workshops and panels sufficiently.

Do you consider this year’s hackathon a success?
Definitely! Despite the virtualization we were able to bring together more than 1,000 hackers to participate and we had such a great time interacting with our hackers over Slack and Zoom. We had the highest number of project submissions for LA Hacks in recent history and we saw some of the most impressive projects to date, including a Zoom sentiment analysis software that lecturers may use to “read the room,” and a quarantine app that allows users to track where they have been and anonymously update the data if they test positive for the coronavirus. For the organizing team as a whole, the entire experience was extremely gratifying because we were able to give these students the opportunity to come together and create amazing projects that bring people closer together during a time when we are all physically far apart.

After this experience, what are one or two tips you could give to clubs looking to organize a virtual event?
The most important thing is to keep a positive mindset: We know that as organizers of any event, it is really discouraging to have to start from scratch and restructure the event into a virtual one. A key note to keep in mind is that, in reality, the virtual event is not quite the same event as the in-person counterpart. Its intentions and goals may align, but in terms of metrics for success and comparisons, they are two different events. You shouldn’t compare the virtual event to the in-person one — rather, treat it as its own new event. And virtualization doesn’t mean the event will be bad or not as good as the original. Because of the virtualization, we were able to allow people from all over the country to participate in the hackathon. Those who may not have had the funds to travel to UCLA to participate and those who felt intimidated by the environment were able to participate and gain valuable experience. The support from our hackers and our sponsors gave us as an organizing team the motivation to make a virtual LA Hacks just as rewarding for those involved as the in-person hackathon would have been.

How did you ensure turnout for your event, given the chaotic nature of these times?
Because we were no longer restricted by venue size, we were able to open the event to any student who was interested in participating. This way, we could give the opportunity to anyone who was interested in gaining not only practical experience in the field but also connect them to other students, as well as mentors and experts. In addition to opening up hackathon participation to all students, we also opened up our virtual workshops and panels to the general public. We also expanded marketing for some of our virtual workshops to groups our event doesn’t traditionally reach, and we had plenty of North Campus majors turn up to our resume workshop we hosted with Honey, an LA Hacks 2020 sponsor.

Can you also suggest ways that a club can foster community, especially in the buildup to the event?
Something we did during our event was set up a virtual “control-room.” Typically during our in-person event, we have a room that’s dedicated to be the organizer base of operations. Since we virtualized the event, we weren’t sure how to emulate that experience. Our solution? Make use of UCLA’s Zoom license offered to all students to set up a 24/7 Zoom room during the event, so that whenever our organizers were bored or not sure what to do, we could hop into the Zoom room and have a chat with whomever that was around. We also had most of the organizing team show up to all of our virtual workshops and panels to support our fellow organizers and facilitate a healthy team dynamic.

Leading up to the event, things were a bit of a blur since there was so much work to do there wasn’t a whole lot of time for socializing, but something that definitely helped foster our community in LA Hacks is a Slackbot we use called Donut. Each week it paired you up with another random organizer, and you’re supposed to meet with them and grab a bite to eat and get to know each other better. Even with school going virtual, we still had, and continue to have, plenty of organizers who schedule Zoom calls to have some virtual grub.

How did this experience influence how LA Hacks is planning for next year’s in-person hackathon?
It’s definitely taught us to be prepared for absolutely anything — you never know what could go wrong. But it’s also shown us how we can make our event a lot more accessible to a lot of people, whilst maintaining the allure of our physical event. Virtualization has been able to expand our outreach greatly, and we could definitely see the potential for a virtual participation option added to our in-person event.

This story is contributed by Emily Luong.


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