Video for Change (v4c) Retreat Report-back: How-to Hack a Hackathon | MIT Center for Civic Media

Video for Change (v4c) Retreat Report-back: How-to Hack a Hackathon

Some filmmakers we met on the v4c daytrip to Borobudor; Magelang, Java.

Hackathon: A hackathon, a hacker neologism, is an event when programmers meet to do collaborative computer programming. (

Hackathons can be single or multiple days and sometimes participants form teams and code in competition. The term hackathon is now applied to other fields and generally to gatherings with multiple aims of producing collaborative work and building community.

In the early half of June, I participated in the video4change (V4C) workshop organized by WITNESS and EngageMedia. We were 21 participants from 12 or organizations working worldwide to train and support people using video for social change.

It was the best kind of hackathon. The v4c gathering was for building knowledge, v4c training resources, and community and it succeeded on all counts. Creating a successful event is some combination of planning, intention, and magic. The rest of this blog post is a reflection on these elements. Thanks to the retreat organizers for the retreat and insights for this post: Cheekay Cinco (EngageMedia), Andrew Lowenthal (EngageMedia), Chris Michael (WITNESS), Diah Sekarwidhi (EngageMedia), and Sam Gregory (WITNESS).

A rare opportunity to gather face to face
In a field where people often work in widespread communities and positioned as teachers, the opportunity to learn from each other and to have feedback from peers was rare and welcomed. With so many groups and individuals in the room who have been pioneering their own methods for years, there was a surprising lack of ego and openness. It was a bit surprising how true this was, but we were able to openly share our work and perspectives. One of the areas we found we wanted the most feedback was in workshopping each others trainings and getting exposure to how we apply our knowledge and approaches. Overall, all of the participants served similar roles in their v4c work so were able to speak about a broad range of topics from theories of social change to training pedagogy to funding.

The rarity of this meeting and mutual respect among participants provided a strong foundation for a cooperative atmosphere. We also followed some best practices from trainings to establish a cooperative and supportive space for working together through agreements and consent to the agenda through discussion of expectations.

Agreements are common in workshop and community meeting settings, but seem to be less common in hackathons. We set agreements at the beginning of the retreat, a list of actions and considerations that we all consented to in order to create a safe and open space for sharing, learning, and creating. We created these through a discussion where participants first suggested potential agreements and then we discussed which agreements we wanted to keep as a group. Our agreements ranged from: no mobile phones and email while in session, to step up step back -- active encouragement of people to speak less if they have been speaking more and to speak up.

Consent to a broad agenda and flexibility in agenda
The hosts, EngageMedia and WITNESS worked hard to create an agenda to encourage mutual learning and teaching about our individual approaches, challenges, and best practices. They began collaborating on the retreat design in Sept 2011. First, each organization envisioned their ideal reatreat separately, and from there, they were able to understand each others goals and values and to create an agenda that respected both. 2 days before the retreat began, the organizers met to fill in details.

When the workshop began, we followed a best practice from workshop facilitation. We began with introductions and sharing individual expectations. Facilitators then introduced the agenda and spoke about how the expectations fit the goals of the agenda points. Through this, they were able to minimize time spent on less-common goals at the start.

In this workshop, organizers said they were not as flexible as they would normally be in a training workshop for the sake of covering a wide range of topics. In a training context, trainers are constantly responding to participants’ needs, revising schedules as workshops progress, taking more time to focus on areas that participants want or need to focus on. Nonetheless, organizers were able to adjust the schedule according to shared goals and evolving interests mostly through shaving time off break times and by being flexible with how we worked -- in a single group or in small breakout groups.

Group size
We found a sweet spot with 21 participants. We were small enough that a conversation with the full group was manageable and everyone could be heard, but also large enough that we could break into 4 or 5 small groups to have more in-depth conversations. Socially, the group was small enough that it was not cliquey and people mixed quite well in free times as well as in more structured sessions.

The art of facilitation
Facilitation is an art and many of the people in the room had dedicated time and attention to becoming engaging trainers and facilitators. Practicing and experiencing each others facilitation skills was a tremendous opportunity. Mostly, this was clear in the energy that facilitators brought and in the approaches. Ice breakers helped to establish a playful and creative atmosphere. Ice breakers included invitations to make silly noises, to play-act, to physically move around the space. Our ice breakers were led by different participants before each session and established a space for us to engage with each other using modes of expression other than speaking.

A worksprint following all the talking.
Following the days of knowledge sharing, many of us remained on site for a worksprint, a sustained and synchronous period of cooperative work. The goal was to gather existing resources to fill training materials gaps and in some cases, to create new resources. Inspired by our conversations together and already with a sense of camaraderie and collaboration, this sprint seemed to go remarkably well and the outcome is a partial set of training materials on a shared web space. People expressed that they were grateful to follow the workshop with a sprint and that it felt like a privilege to stay and work together.

I’m looking forward to continuing work with fellow v4c retreat participants and to applying some of these lessons to other community and field building gatherings.

Cheekay Cinco’s post about the v4c retreat on EngageMedia’s blog: