The ADASS Time Domain Astronomy Hackathon, part 2

This is a continuation of a previous post, and was written by Brian Thomas, Alice Allen, Marc W. Pound, and Peter Teuben.

Lessons Learned
As this was the first such event of this type for ADASS we were unsure of the outcome, as it was somewhat of an experiment. We share some lessons learned for future events.

  1. Provide a list of interesting problems and related clean data. Doing so helps to bootstrap project ideas, as not all participants will have enough domain background to start quickly.  Because the event was so short, it was helpful to provide microservices and point to  datasets that were more or less cleaned and ‘ready to go’ for projects directed at these problem areas.
  2. Develop a marketing plan. We could have done a better job to garner interest in the event. We posted to a community BBS, a UMD subreddit, posted paper flyers in campus science and engineering buildings, and contacted student groups and faculty to help spread the word. However, we did not have a coordinated campaign that included social media and messaging targeted for specific dates and groups (e.g., “Save The Date” emails), nor was the hackathon mentioned in the ADASS registration form. A competing, large, all-women hackathon ( held the same weekend on campus also affected our enrollment.
  3. Venue (location and time) is important. The university was a good choice because of easy access to rooms, wifi, and food choices. Holding the hackathon at a large academic institution ensured that it would be easy for younger participants (undergrads) to attend, as did holding the event over a weekend to avoid conflicting with classes.
  4. Have an assessment tool/strategy. An exit survey or ending discussion with participants can help improve subsequent hackathons. We failed to take advantage of the opportunity to engage either the participants or the ADASS audience at the session where winning projects were presented about perceived problems and good aspects of our event.
  5. Narrow the range of participant experience. Future organizers should consider either limiting participation to non-professionals, or group the participants and awards into professional and non-professionals. It is somewhat unfair to have less experienced coders compete against domain specialists and possibly contrary to the avowed desire to use this event to advertise our field of work to outsiders.
  6. Time management is crucial. Scheduling a conference event right at the end of the hackathon was problematic, and not tightly managing the final presentation time and similar issues became important and detracted from the event. This will be particularly important in other events that have larger participation.

A community lives and dies by how well it nurtures the next generation. Folks enter the ADASS community by a number of means but typically by being either scientists who become attracted to the technical challenges of writing the software or as computer engineers and programmers who find the science use cases particularly interesting. We are not aware of any organized means to train the next generation of ADASS workers; there are no formal degree programs in “Astronomy Software.” As such, our community has taken a somewhat laissez-faire approach to training the next generation and this may lead to a future deficit in skilled professionals willing to work in our field. More and more our community’s skills are being found useful in application elsewhere; for example, many ADASS attendees can easily become highly sought after Data Scientists.

Hackathons are a step towards being more proactive in our outreach and provide an ideal means to encourage and interest a younger group of programmers in the complex and interesting challenges that our community tackles. We found a number of lessons in hosting this event but no showstoppers, and a good deal of goodwill was generated. Based on our experience, we heartily recommend that future ADASS events include hackathon events.

Acknowledgments. We would like to thank the City of College Park for providing the prize money, Vigilante Coffee for supplying much needed coffee, ASCL for providing snacks and the University of Maryland Astronomy Department for hosting the hackathon.

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