Turns out this weekend is going to be hacktastic. If you’ve never been to a hackathon before, there are plenty of choices. Among them:

  • Dec. 4 is Open Data Day, where participants will use open public data to create all sorts of projects all over the world.
  • It’s also the start of Random Hacks of Kindness, a two-day international event for projects related to natural disaster risk and response.
  • Not to be outdone, The New York Times holds its first-ever TimesOpen Hack Day on Saturday too.
  • Leave it to San Francisco to hold Cloudstock, “the Woodstock for Cloud Developers.” That hackathon happens Dec. 6.

If you’re a developer who’s never been to a hack event before, register and go if an event sounds well-organized and interesting. Meet people. Find the ones you like. Build stuff together.

If you’re a journalist who’s never been to a hack event before, you’re probably wondering what the heck a hackathon is.

Wikipedia’s got a whole page about it. Basically, it’s an event for people (usually coders) to get together, hatch an idea, and produce a working model (a “hack”) within a fixed period of time using ingenuity, cooperation and whatever means are at their disposal.

Some hackathons are “open,” meaning you can build what you want. Others have themes and parameters. There are those, like next weekend’s OpenDoor Hackathon, that call for hardware hacks. Others, like Longshot magazine, are about storytelling and are definitely within the comfort zone of any journalist willing to hustle and forgo a little sleep.

There are way more techie hack days than there are journalist-specific hack days. But that does not mean you, Reporter/Editor/Visual Journalist-lacking-coding-skills, should be timid.

Pick the right event, and you’ll find yourself among people who are willing to teach you what you don’t know, or at least explain what they’re doing as they’re doing it.

While you’re putting the project together, you’ll discover opportunities to contribute your own knowledge and skills: looking for information, sharing subject expertise, asking incisive questions, picking through data troves, realizing when an idea needs to evolve (or as the startup people like to say, “pivot“).

You might feel like you’re barely hanging on during the first couple of hack events you go to. But the more you go, the more you’ll learn where your own hacker interests lie. Who knows? You might find yourself learning to program and creating data visualizations and making maps using something other than Google Maps.

Want some inspiration? Two years ago, journalist Jeremy Singer-Vine was not a programmer. But in two years, he learned enough to make a tool that’s been used by Slate and NPR to help the public make sense of financial jargon.

Cool and useful, right?

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