It is very likely that your hackathon will have a theme. Very early in the planning process you will want to think about what the theme will be. It’s possible that the theme will tie into your hackathon goals. You should use the theme to guide developers to create the kinds of solutions you want to see at the hackathon.
You have two thematic slots to fill. The first is a topic theme and the second is a technology theme. You do not have to set a theme for both theme and technology. I frequently set one, but not the other. Examples of a topic theme are education, music, travel, smart city. Examples of a technology theme are IoT, mobile app, VR. The topic theme can be another industry entirely and the technology theme should be how you want people to build or deliver their solutions. If you have an IoT education hackathon, you are asking teams to build apps for education that are connected to the Internet of Things.
When you are deciding on a theme, there is a balance of keeping it broad, but not too broad while simultaneously making it specific, but not so specific that it only allows for three project variations. For example, a theme that would be too broad would be Government. The idea of government is so widespread and topically diverse that it doesn’t provide enough parameters to drive creative solutions. A theme that would be too narrow would be a Smart City Parking theme. That is too specific and will likely yield very similar solutions from most teams. It will be boring to sit through 15 parking apps during the final presentations.
A good theme is Smart City since it provides parameters, but still has a number of diverse problems that developers can solve. When I’ve run a smart city hackathon, I will also specify sub-themes. I list three areas that team can focus on like public safety, smart transportation or environment. Doing that helps to provide even more parameters if it would be helpful to the team. If not, they are still able to work under the Smart City thematic umbrella.
To incentivize teams to build projects within the theme hackathon, I attach prizes to the themes. (Another way to encourage thematic participation is to include adherence to the theme in the judging criteria.) In the Smart City hackathon example, I would have a prize for each of the three sub-categories and I would have a larger prize for the Best Smart City Hack. This encourages teams to develop projects in the three sub-categories but allows for a team to build something different and still be considered for a prize. Some people don’t like prizes at hackathons and that is just fine. I run my hackathons with prizes, but I also stress to participants the other great benefits of hackathons.
If you are working with a subject matter expert (SME) in a theme area, feel free to ask them to come up with several problems they would like to see team work on. You or the SME can present the problems during the kickoff. The is a helpful way to give teams a starting point. Often teams will work on different parts of the problem statements. They will bring in their own perspective which will give more variety to the final presentations.