Organising Astro Hack Week Part 1: How to organise a hack week

This will be a series of posts about organizing Astro Hack Week 2015. What is Astro Hack Week, you might rightfully ask? Let’s start with that, before we go into the organization in detail.

It’s a five-day workshop that’s part academic summer school—with tutorials and lectures on cutting-edge data analysis topics and methods—and part hackathon, with free time for teams to self-organize and hack (work quickly, but productively) on their own data analysis problems. In our case, it was all, in some way, related to astronomy, though not all projects had scientific results at their end goal. Sometimes, a successful hack can results in a funny twitter bot, sometimes it simply improves documentation to existing software projects relevant to astronomy, or produces new code.
The entire endeavour thrives on collaboration: the idea is that if you put many bright minds with enough enthusiasm in a room, awesome stuff will come out. The record seems to prove that hypothesis right.

But this post is not about all the fun stuff that happens at a hack week. This post is about the basic organisation of Astro Hack Week, and will be followed by followed by more specific posts about different aspects of it.

There are some general rules that apply to Astro Hack Week as much to any other conference: a good scientific organizing committee is crucial for the success of Astro Hack Week. I’ve been fortunate to have a very knowledgable group of people to help with the organisation, all of which are experienced at hackathons. A lot of what I’ll be writing is based not only on my own observations, but also on those I’ve picked up in discussions with the rest of the team.

Organizing a hack week requires attention to a lot of different parts: (1) the tutorials, (2) the afternoon hackathons, (3) the space, (4) admitting participants, (5) live streaming.
All of these are going to have their own posts in the future, which means I’m going to just make some general observations here. So here’s some things I learned while organizing Astro Hack Week. Looking back on it, a lot of it seems like common sense, but when I first organized Astro Hack Week, it wasn’t to me.

Organizing Astro Hack Week Takes More Time Than You Think!

I think this is generally true for any workshop, but this was the first time I organized one, so it kind of drove the point home. I wish I’d thought about assembling a Local Organizing Committee in the very beginning instead of later on, because it would have saved me a lot of time and headaches.

Start early, and delegate tasks early on. I’m not very good at delegating tasks, so I didn’t. I did, however, start early. This is especially important for choosing a location. The space you’re in is going to be one of the most important factors determining how well your hack week is going to go, so spend some time thinking about the requirements (I’ll share what I’ve learned in an upcoming post) and search for a space early, because especially if you are at a university, these spaces will fill up nearly a year in advance!

Same goes for publicizing that your event is happening. Setting up a website, sending out e-mails to departments and registering your meeting at the relevant places (in astronomy, there’s a website that collects all astronomy conferences happening during the year) should happen as early as possible, ideally ~10 months or so in advance. This makes potential participants aware that it exists and other conference organizers aware that they might not want to put their meeting in the same spot if they can avoid it.

Feed Your Participants!

Catering is about the second-most important determining factor in making your hack week successful (I’m not kidding!). Make sure coffee and tea don’t run out (especially during the hacking). Make sure there are sweets. As soon as you have your list of participants, ask them for dietary requirements. Be prepared to argue with your caterers! I was surprised by how unprepared caterers are even in a place like New York when it comes to (good) vegetarian/vegan options and food allergies. And there’s always the risk of instances of “But chicken is vegetarian!” I’ve observed happening in the past.
During the hack week itself, make sure the food is labelled and point out (time and time again), that people who are not vegetarian/vegan should please leave those for the vegetarians/vegans. Otherwise participants might end up with no food they can eat.
Also, depending on your room (and your university’s policy for charging for it) catering will probably end up the biggest contributor to the costs. This is important, because in the beginning, we considered asking participants to find their own lunch (given NYU’s location in Lower Manhattan, this wouldn’t have been a problem for them), but we were afraid that if we did, many wouldn’t come back and just find a cafe to hack in with people they already knew. We wanted to keep the group together and allow discussions over lunch, and that immediately required us to cater lunch (and coffee breaks).
We were lucky that we were very generously funded by the Moore-Sloan Data Science Environment at NYU, which meant we could provide catering while keeping conference fees fairly low. If you’re organizing a hack week, be aware of this cost factor and plan for it.

Hack Weeks are Expensive (But Worth It!)

Conferences in general are expensive, and if you rely on funding yourself via conference fees, they’ll be expensive to your participants, too. I think twice before signing up for a conference that costs $500-$600 just to register. Additionally, Astro Hack Week is a workshop, not a conference. This might mean it’s even harder for students and postdocs convince their supervisors why they should be going, since their funding is limited and they in all likelihood won’t be giving a shiny talk they can put on their CV (though I’d argue that they will make much more personal connections to other researchers at all academic stages and hopefully build lasting collaborations). Keeping conference fees low was a priority to us, and I’d recommend making it a priority for any hack week.

Relatedly, make sure you have a refund policy. People drop out, sometimes at the last minute, and you need to be sure at some point about the precise amount of money you can plan with. I wish someone had told me in the beginning that I need a refund policy for the conference fees, because a few times, I wish I’d had one.

Find out what your university’s policies and procedures are with respect to workshop organization and grant management. You are going to take money off people, which means (a) you need the infrastructure to do so, including taking credit cards etc., and (b) that money needs to go somewhere, and someone is going to have to pay taxes on it. For the basic infrastructure, we went with a commercial service called RegOnline by Lanyon, which mostly of did the job. Talk to your grant administrators and department administrators about procedures. They can be extremely helpful in figuring things out.

Offer Travel + Child Care Grants

Another priority is finding funding for travel grants, especially for students. Even if conference fees are low, travel to and hotel costs in New York are still very high. We asked in our initial application whether participants would require funding from us to help them attend. Thanks to some very generous grants from GitHub and LSSTC, we were able to help fund travel expenses for ten participants, i.e. 20% of our total participants. This included undergraduate students, for whom there is almost never any money in anyone’s grant anywhere. From conversations with the participants we funded, for all of them, particularly those from outside the US, the ability to help fund their travel expenses made the difference between attending and not attending. Think early about who might help fund your hack week, because you need to be able to promise travel funding at the time you admit participants. Think outside the box: there might be companies out there that are quite happy to donate some money to your organization to fund student travel. For most of them, it’s not a lot of money, but for your participants, it might be!

If I were organizing another Astro Hack Week, I’d also try to offer child care grants to make it easier for participants with children to attend. Though I also wouldn’t be opposed to having children in the room.

Interacting with the Outside World

Astro Hack Week was more than three times oversubscribed. This makes selecting participants quite difficult (but I’ll write about that in another post), and it also leaves an important question: what are you going to do with all the applicants that won’t be able to attend your hack week?
To be clear: from the applications we got, it was obvious that all of them were serious, and we did not reject a single applicant because we didn’t feel they deserved to attend Astro Hack Week.
But I still had to write more than a hundred e-mails telling applicants they couldn’t attend. And it sucked.
At the same time, I didn’t want Astro Hack Week to live in a sort of bubble where we worked on some projects and nobody outside the room knew what was going on. We tried to mitigate this on several levels. We live-streamed all of the tutorials (again, future blog post), and invited those not physically present to interact with us mainly via Twitter. All the talks (if we received permission from the speakers) were uploaded on Youtube afterwards, important especially to those in time zones that weren’t conducive to watching the live stream. We encouraged participants to code openly on GitHub during Astro Hack Week, write up their progress openly on a HackPad and publicized all those (e.g. in the astronomer’s Facebook group as well as Twitter). This at least allowed interested researchers outside Astro Hack Week to follow our progress, ask questions, make comments and interact with both the organizers and participants. The rest is up to them!

I’m sure I’ve missed a lot, but this blog post is already longer than I wanted it to be, so I’m going to stop here.
Comments, suggestions and questions are more than welcome!


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