How would you like a mobile app that knows you’re on your way to the airport, gives you an ETA, updates you about flight delays, and helps you change your flight if necessary? AirPing does that, and it also gives the airline real-time data on passenger location for reassigning seats. That’s why it took the first prize of $10,000, plus 25,000 air miles, at Travel Hack at SXSW. As we rediscovered during Travel Hack, there’s nothing quite like a hackathon for sheer, spontaneous ingenuity, especially when American Airlines and AT&T open up new APIs.

The business value of a hackathon

Have you ever attended a hackathon? Hackathons are long on collaboration, soft drinks, and laptops, and they’re short on sunshine, glamour, and sleep. Occasionally you’ll see Special Guest Stars, like electronic kitty ears or, in this case, access to American Airlines’ check-in gate of the future. Developers are already in the mood to innovate, and these special treats really ignite them.

But in a well-run hackathon there’s even greater value for the three main stakeholders:

Developers

About 100 developers attended Travel Hack, and if you were one of them, you got:

  • New APIs and use cases. Hackathons show developers real-world business problems and tools they wouldn’t normally get to see, like the sneak-preview application programming interfaces (API) that American Airlines and AT&T made available just for Travel Hack.
  • Live, in-person access to experts. You’re never more than 15 steps from one of the people who helped write the dev tools and APIs, and they’re willing to help you.
  • Networking, community spirit and contacts. Hackathons bring lone-wolf developers together to find and work with one another.
  • Prizes and exposure. You and your team may win cash and high-profile recognition from sponsors, venture capitalists and the press.

API providers

In addition to AT&T and American Airlines APIs,several other travel-related companies made their code and tools available during Travel Hack. All of these API providers got:

  • A ready, willing, able audience. Providers can crash-test their code with a demanding hackathon crowd before rolling them out to the wider market.
  • Technical insights. Hackathons are your first chance to see, outside of your own labs, how developers use your tools in the real world.
  • Exposure for experts. While your engineers are answering questions about APIs, they’re also boosting their profile and building valuable relationships outside your company.

The direct dialog with the developers benefits API providers in that real-time feedback is received on usability and is an efficient way to identify bugs in the code that can be fixed for future releases.

Enterprises

Travel Hack sponsors AT&T and American Airlines got:

  • New product ideas. Hackathons are fertile ground for ideas at the higher level of new products and markets.
  • Integrations. Enterprise developers spend plenty of time making new things work with existing things. At a hackathon, they can see how developers combine their products with other products.
  • Ways to solve business problems. Hackathons attract developers who think about business problems from completely different perspectives.

Have a look at John Donovan’s post or SXSW recap for more details about AirPing, Mokiico, Round Trip and the other brilliant apps that developers created in a weekend.

Have you ever attended a hackathon? What did you learn from it? What does your business do to ignite innovation?