The word "hackathon" is a portmanteau of the words "hack" and "marathon", where "hack" is used in the sense of exploratory programming, not its alternate meaning as a reference to computer crime. The term seems to have been created independently by both the developers of OpenBSD and the marketing team of Sun; these usages both first happened in 1999.
OpenBSD's apparent first use of the term referred to a cryptographic development event held in Calgary on June 4, 1999, where 10 developers came together to avoid legal problems caused by export regulations of cryptographic software from the United States. Since then, a further 3-5 events per-year have occurred around the world to advance development, generally on University campuses.
For Sun, the usage referred to an event at the JavaOne conference from June 15 to June 19, 1999; there John Gage challenged attendees to write a program in Java for the new Palm V using the infrared port to communicate with other Palm users and register it on the Internet.
Starting in the mid to late 2000s, hackathons became significantly more widespread, and began to be increasingly viewed by companies and venture capitalists as a way to quickly develop new software technologies, and to locate new areas for innovation and funding. Some major companies were born from these hackathons, such as GroupMe, which began as a project at a hackathon at the TechCrunch Disrupt 2010 conference; in 2011 it was acquired by Skype for $85 million. The software PhoneGap began as a project at the iPhoneDevCamp (later renamed iOSDevCamp) in 2008; the company whose engineers developed PhoneGap, Nitobi, refocused itself around PhoneGap, and Nitobi was bought by Adobe in 2011 for an undisclosed amount.
Hackathons typically start with one or more presentations about the event, as well as about the specific subject, if any. Then participants suggest ideas and form teams, based on individual interests and skills. Then the main work of the hackathon begins, which can last anywhere from several hours to several days. For hackathons that last 24 hours or longer, especially competitive ones, eating is often informal, with participants often subsisting on food like pizza and energy drinks. Sometimes sleeping is informal as well, with participants sleeping on-site with sleeping bags.
At the end of hackathons, there is usually a series of demonstrations in which each group presents their results. To capture the great ideas and work-in-progress often people post a video of the demonstrations, blog about results with screenshots and details, share links and progress on social media, suggest a place for open source code and generally make it possible for people to share, learn from and possibly build from the ideas generated and initial work completed. There is sometimes a contest element as well, in which a panel of judges select the winning teams, and prizes are given. At many hackathons, the judges are made up of organizers and sponsors. At BarCamp-style hackathons, that are organized by the development community, such as iOSDevCamp, the judges are usually made up of peers and colleagues in the field. Such prizes are sometimes a substantial amount of money: a social gaming hackathon at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference offered $250,000 in funding to the winners, while a controversial 2013 hackathon run by Salesforce.com had a payout of $1 million to the winners, billed as the largest-ever prize.
Some hackathons focus on a particular platform such as mobile apps, a desktop operating system, web development or video game development.
Mobile app hackathons like Over the Air, held at Bletchley Park, England, can see a large amount of corporate sponsorship and interest.
Music Hack Day, a hackathon for music-related software and hardware applications, is a popular event, having been held over 30 times around the world since 2009. Also Music Tech Fest, a three-day interdisciplinary festival for music ideas bringing together musicians with hackers, researchers and industry, features a hackathon. Similarly, Science Hack Day, a hackathon for making things with science, has been held over 45 times in over 15 countries around the world since 2010.
Hackathons have been held to develop applications that run on various mobile device operating systems, such as Android, iOS and MeeGo. Hackathons have also been held to develop video-based applications and computer games. Hackathons where video games are developed are sometimes called game jams.
"TV Hackfest" events have been held in both London and San Francisco, focusing mainly on social television and second screen technologies. In TV Hackfests, challenge briefs are typically submitted by content producers and brands, in the form of broadcast industry metadata or video content, while sponsors supply APIs, SDKs and pre-existing open source software code.
Hackathons have also been used in the life sciences to advance the informatics infrastructure that supports research. The Open Bioinformatics Foundation ran two hackathons for its member projects in 2002 and 2003, and since 2010 has held 2-day "codefests" preceding its annual conference. The National Evolutionary Synthesis Center has co-organized and sponsored hackathons for evolutionary bioinformatics since 2006. BioHackathon is an annual event that started in 2008 targeted at advancing standards to enable interoperable bioinformatics tools and Web services. Neuroscientists have also used hackathons to bring developers and scientists together to address issues that range from focusing on a specific information system (e.g., Neurosynth Hackathon and the Allen Brain Atlas Hackathon) and providing reserved time for broad scientific inquiry (e.g., Brainhack), to using specific challenges that focus hacking activity (e.g., HBM Hackathon).
Some hackathons focus on applications that make use of the application programming interface, or API, from a single company or data source. Open Hack, an event run publicly by Yahoo! since 2006 (originally known as "Hack Day", then "Open Hack Day"), has focused on usage of the Yahoo! API, in addition to APIs of websites owned by Yahoo!, like Flickr. The company's Open Hack India event in 2012 had over 700 attendees. Google has run similar events for their APIs, as has the travel guide company Lonely Planet.
The website Foursquare notably held a large, global hackathon in 2011, in which over 500 developers at over 30 sites around the world competed to create applications using the Foursquare API. A second Foursquare hackathon, in 2013, had around 200 developers.
There have been a number of hackathons devoted to improving government, and specifically to the cause of open government. One such event, in 2011, was hosted by the United States Congress. Starting in 2012, NASA has been annually hosting the International Space Apps Challenge.
In 2014, the British government and HackerNest ran DementiaHack, the world's first hackathon dedicated to improving the lives of people living with dementia and their caregivers. The series continues in 2015, adding the Canadian government and Facebook as major sponsors.
NHS England benefit from a community of supporters running regular hackdays. These are planned 3 times a year are held in a variety of locations including London, Cardiff, Manchester, Oxford, leeds and Cambridge. The first NHS Hackday was held in London on May 26, 2012.
With over 6,000 registrations in their first year, HackingEDU's hackathon, held in San Mateo, California, is the world's largest education hackathon by attendance on October 23, 2015. The event is run by a non-profit organization whose mission is to "inspire the next generation of students to solve the problems that plague our education system."
The Global Game Jam, the largest video game development hackathon, often includes optional requirements called 'diversifiers' that aim to promote game accessibility and other causes.
Various hackathons have been held to improve city transit systems. Hackathons aimed at improvements to city local services are increasing, with one of the London Councils (Hackney) creating a number of successful local solutions on a 2 Day Hackney-thon There have also been a number of hackathons devoted to improving education, including Education Hack Day and on a smaller scale, looking specifically at the challenges of field work based geography education, the Field Studies Council hosted FSCHackday. Random Hacks of Kindness is another popular hackathon, devoted to disaster management and crisis response.
Hackathons have also been held to benefit nonprofit organizations with their technology and website needs. For example, Florida DrupalCamp's Coding with a Cause, Chennai based non-profit Code 4 Cause, and Droplabs' Coders with a Cause events both benefit local nonprofits.
Hack for Big Choices is an organization that organizes hackathons around the world in order to come up with solutions to local problems. Among the hackathons they have co-organized was the largest hackathon ever held in Africa, which took place in Accra on February 20–22, 2015; it gathered 215 hackers and more than 400 attendees. Hackers.mu is an organization in Mauritius that organizes hackathons to encourage Mauritians to use and contribute to Free & Open Source projects. They organized the First Linux Hackathon in Mauritius dubbed Operation S.A.D.
A number of hackathons around the world have been planned in memory of computer programmer and internet activist Aaron Swartz, who died in 2013.
Some hackathons are intended only for programmers within a certain demographic group, like teenagers, college students, or women.
Hackathons at colleges have become increasingly popular, in the United States and elsewhere. These are usually annual or semiannual events that are open to college students at all universities. They are often competitive, with awards provided by the University or programming-related sponsors. Many of them are supported by the organization Major League Hacking, which was founded in 2013 to assist with the running of collegiate hackathons.
PennApps at the University of Pennsylvania was the first student-run college hackathon; in 2015 it became the largest college hackathon with its 12th iteration hosting over 2000 people and offering over $60k in prizes.
Some companies, such as Netflix, Syntel, Cognizant, Facebook, Amazon, Google, SendGrid, Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, Turner Broadcasting System, Pegasystems and Kareo, hold internal hackathons to promote new product innovation by the engineering staff. For example, Facebook's Like button was conceived as part of a hackathon.
In some hackathons, all work is based around improving a single application, such as an operating system, programming language, or content management system. Such events are often known as "sprints" or "code sprints", and they are especially popular for open source software projects, where sprints or hackathons are sometimes the only opportunity for developers to meet face-to-face. Unlike other hackathons, these events rarely include a competitive element.
The annual hackathon to work on the operating system OpenBSD, held since 1999, is one such event; it was a pioneering hackathon that may have originated the word "hackathon".
Programming languages that have had such hackathons include Perl (for both development and QA), Haskell Scala and the PyPy interpreter for Python.
LibreOffice, Drupal and MediaWiki are other applications that hold development hackathons.
A hackathon in the Illawarra region of Australia named Hackagong was started in 2012. It was founded by students of the university of Wollongong to ignite the local tech startup culture and contribute to local economy. In 2013 it featured a 3D printing competition which may have been the first of its kind in Australia.
Some hackathons are created for students that are newer to programming, such as CodeDay, a 24-hour hackathon in 27 cities across the United States geared towards beginner and intermediate students. "Beginner" hackathons usually have interactive workshops on several topics such as iOS development, video game development, web development, basic programming, and perhaps even design principles.
Some hackathons have no restrictions on content or attendees, and are simply a gathering to generate interesting software applications quickly. SAPO Codebits, sponsored by the Portuguese internet service provider SAPO, is one example.A team at the September 2013 TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon presented the TitStare app, which allowed users to post and view pictures of men staring at people's cleavage. TechCrunch issued an apology later that day.
A November 2013 hackathon run by Salesforce.com, billed as having the largest-ever grand prize at $1 million, was accused of impropriety after it emerged that the winning entrants, a two-person startup called Upshot, had been developing the technology that they demoed for over a year, and that one of the two was a former Salesforce employee.
Major League Hacking expelled a pair of hackers from the September 2015 hackathon Hack the North at the University of Waterloo for making jokes that were interpreted as bomb threats, leading many hackers to criticize the organization. As a result of the controversy, Victor Vucicevich resigned from the Hack the North organizing team.