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Codeathons, Hackfests, and Maker Fairs - Déjà Vu All Over Again
Volume 39, Number 5 - September/October 2015


The U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) became law in 1966—some 200 years after Sweden enacted similar legislation. As Joshua Tauberer notes in his 2014 book Open Government Data (The Book), “Inspiration for FOIA came not from the ideals of European Enlightenment but from the expansion of the federal government during and after World War II, the resulting bureaucracy and record-keeping, and the increasing skill of the federal government at manipulating public opinion” ( This has been followed by state and federal laws and administrative decisions to make data and information openly available using the web.

As Barack Obama said in 2009: “My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government” ( Although this clearly doesn’t apply to PATRIOT ACT surveillance and some other types of efforts, data is open today at unprecedented levels, including data from federally sponsored research from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and other research funding agencies (

“Civic hacking using government data in particular has implications far beyond our experience with government,” Tauberer writes. “It contributes to the national economy, helps consumers be more informed, and makes our own government more efficient. By empowering citizens to perform their own market oversight, for instance, we reduce the need for regulations and the bureaucracy that regulations create.”

In North America and Western Europe—and increasingly across the globe—codeathons are common and proving successful ways of increasing awareness of trends from available data and helping to contribute to improvements. Here are just three examples from governments:

  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Health 2.0 Developer Challenge Program sponsors “a series of online innovation competitions (or challenges) in which multidisciplinary teams boldly tackle the most complex challenges we face in health care. Our mission is to catalyze and showcase new and disruptive technologies in the space by providing funding, validation, and marketing reach to novel solutions” (
  • The White House Council on Women and Girls launched “the Equal Futures App Challenge—to create apps that inspire girls and young women to become leaders in our democracy in 2011” ( boston-support-white-house-equal-futu).
  • Open Canada has its Canadian Open Data Experience (CODE), intended to “mash-up federal datasets as well as include provincial, territorial, and municipal data when building apps” and involves “developers, graphic designers, students, and anyone interested at trying their hand at coding to use Government of Canada open data” in a “48-hour appathon” each year (

Cynthia Warringa van Genderen reiterates the idea that “The origins of the citizen’s right to know derive from the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century, the ages of the Enlightenment. The concepts of publicness, freedom of the press and the principle of public access were born in this period” (The Right to Know: A Comparative Legal Survey of Access to Official Information in Different Countries, University of Leiden 2013). Her study found that many factors affect the acceptance and operational access to data across the globe. For too many countries today, these factors still include “a strong culture of secrecy, mismanagement on top-level and corruption …” and because “local documentation and information officers on low positions are indifferent towards compliance or even ignorant of the law. Also illiteracy and poverty among the public result into an uneven public awareness of their right to know.”


The Home Brew Computer Club began in 1975 in Silicon Valley and, along with other computer clubs such as the Twin Cities CP/M Users Group and the Trenton Computer Club in New Jersey, provided support, education, and get-togethers to explore the technology and learn more from each other and the technology itself.

In his January 1977 BYTE article, “A Computer Hobbyist Club Survey,” David Caulkins notes, “the survey shows rather clearly that there are many more hobbyists than there are university graduates in computer science. I hold the radical view that an hour spent debugging one’s own machine or program is worth ten hours of lecture about how to do it.” Although this early hobbyist movement faded out, there have been many other milestones in this history. Here’s a quick look:

Radio Shack is founded to provide equipment for the new ham radio marketplace. At one time, Radio Shack was the world’s largest electronics chain, branching out to sell personal computers (TRS-80) and other hobbyist products.

The U.S. Freedom of Information Act is passed in the U.S., followed by other countries and many NGOs, leading to the evolution of egovernment, e-democracy, open data, open society, and other concepts.

The Open Source Request for Comments process from ARPANET helps set an open framework for the collaborative process that leads to the birth of the internet. The sharing of source code on the internet, often written in BASIC and standard formats, arises, leading eventually to Linux as a truly open source operating system.

Oregon Trail is developed by a Minnesota teacher, who later publishes the source code, written in BASIC 3.1, in Creative Computing ’s May–June 1978 issue. The program sells more than 65 million copies and has been cited as the “killer app” for the widespread adoption of microcomputers into primary schools in the U.S.

Release of VisiCalc—the “Killer App,” brings PCs into the global business marketplace and results in the birth of the consumer software industry.

Networks of personal computers replace timesharing as the core of academic computing.

Drexel University institutes a new policy requiring each incoming freshman to have access to a personal computer for use in all courses.

Shakeouts in the PC industry leave the IBM PC and Apple dominating the market. Both are very closed systems.

Linux is first released by Linus Torvalds and is perhaps the most significant example of the free, open source software movement.

The term “open source” is first used in reaction to Netscape’s announcement of the source code release for its browser Navigator as being available without charge to all noncommercial users.

The “hackathon” name is coined at both OPENBSD (an open source, communal development group in Canada) and SUN Microsystems’ Palm V hackathon event as a competition at a developers conference for the Palm Pilot handheld system.

Music Hack Day is attended by a diverse range of music and technology enthusiasts, first sponsored by the Guardian newspaper and involving “200 developers who had 24 hours to build new hacks or apps using the APIs or tools of 10 participating companies. The weekend-long event also included some workshops for attendees” (

Mark Zuckerberg introduces Facebook hackathons—internal to the company—to encourage innovation.

Arduino ( starts to provide open source computer hardware and software to the project and user community as the basis for designing and building digital devices and interactive objects.

MAKE ( bimonthly magazine debuts, focusing on the DIY and DIWO (do it with others) movements in various areas. The magazine is considered the primary publication for the maker movement.

Yahoo Hackathons or “Hack Days” are the first ones similar to hackathons of today, stressing cooperative, collaborative development. Yahoo owns URL, although it is not active today.

The Maker Faire event is created and controlled by Make to “celebrate arts, crafts, engineering, science projects and the Do-It-Yourself mindset.” These faires are now held across the globe.

The first “Startup Weekend” focuses on product/company development work on a single idea for a weekend; nonprofit-organized. Now occurring all over the globe. “Startup Weekends are weekend-long, hands-on experiences where entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs can find out if startup ideas are viable. On average, half of Startup Weekend’s attendees have technical or design backgrounds, the other half have business backgrounds” (, a nonprofit, “powered by Google for Entrepreneurs”). “As of April 2013, 1,068 events had been held, involving over 100,000 entrepreneurs across more than 400 cities in over 100 countries and over 8,190 startups have been created.”

CrunchBase, “the definitive database of the startup ecosystem,” is launched as a startup ecosystem for investors, incubators, and startups. It now includes “650k profiles of people and companies that are maintained by tens of thousands of contributors” (

Code for America ( is established as a nonprofit to enlist “technology and design professionals to work with city governments in the U.S. in order to build open source applications and promote openness, participation and efficiency in government, and has grown into a cross-sector network of practitioners of civic innovation and a platform for ‘civic hacking.’”

TechCrunch Disrupt begins as an annual conference hosted by TechCrunch in three cities: San Francisco, New York City, and Beijing, where tech startups meet with venture capitalists, media, and others for attention
and prize money (

Institute for the Future (IFTF) Science Hack Day, a 48-hour, all-night event, goes global with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation (

Debut of Maker Magazine (, an up-scale, less hands-on “annual publication shedding light on the creative mind and spirit, articulating the often unexplored, more personal projects and perspectives of contemporary artists.”

The White House sponsors its first codeathon, focused on Apps for Equal Futures, “a challenge to create apps that inspire girls and young women to become leaders in our democracy” (

The first Global Codeathon event takes place for elementary students to share their interest in coding with other students around the world to create, connect, and compete (

Civic Data Codeathon, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and a group of foundations, is held in developing countries as “a combined data analysis and tool development event where participants used openly licensed data to develop data stories, infographics and put technical expertise in developing data-driven applications” (


Want to get started with DIY computer making? Building your own won’t get you the complete functionality of a fully loaded PC, but you’ll have the satisfaction of participating in the maker movement. Remember, too, that the amazing shrinkage in computer technology is due to continuing miniaturization on the one hand and Moore’s Law for increased performance on the other. It has allowed for the development of smart watches, smart cars, 3D printing, wearable technology, and other innovations.

Boards and kits can be purchased from vendors across the web; however, here are the current major manufacturers and providers of these systems:

Arduino (
This Italian company produces open source hardware and software and makes kits for building a wide variety of device and interactive objects. You can buy these as completed boards or as kits for those who want to do it for themselves. The community for this platform is global and huge, and the site links to tutorials, coding examples, and other hints and tips for the naïve and experienced hacker.

BeagleBone (
Based on a microcontroller from Texas Instruments, “ is the result of an effort by a collection of passionate individuals, including several employees of Texas Instruments, interested in creating powerful, open, and embedded devices.”

CutieBoard (
The Chinese single-board computer began production in 2012. These systems offer a 1GHz of RAM processor and a separate Mali400 graphics chip, 1GB of RAM, and 4GB of on-board storage for running Android, Ubuntu, or other Linus derivatives.

Pinguino (
Provides “open hardware electronics prototyping platform [and an] open source integrated development environment (IDE). Pinguino is an Arduino-like electronics prototyping platform. It supports different 8- and 32-bit Microchip microcontrollers, all with built-in USB module.”

Raspberry Pi (
“A low cost, credit-card sized computer that plugs into a computer monitor or TV, and uses a standard keyboard and mouse. It is a capable little device that enables people of all ages to explore computing, and to learn how to program in languages like Scratch and Python. It’s capable of doing everything you’d expect a desktop computer to do, from browsing the internet and playing high-definition video, to making spreadsheets, word-processing, and playing games.”

Texas Instruments’ MSP430 LaunchPad (
This is a key microcontroller from this chipmaker that offers an “array of boards ranging from ‘eZ’ to full-blown user experience. Depending on the user’s needs, the list of hardware products has several features to help move forward to production.”

Teensey & Teensey++ (
Provides “a complete USB-based microcontroller development system, in a very small footprint, capable of implementing many types of projects. All programming is done via the USB port. No special programmer is needed, only a standard ‘Mini-B’ USB cable and a PC or Macintosh with a USB port.”

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Nancy K.Herther is the anthropology/sociology librarian at University of Minnesota Libraries, Twin Cities Campus.


Comments? Contact the editors at

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