Coming Up with Your First Hackathon Project Idea

AthenaHacks
3 min readFeb 2, 2021

At my first hackathon, I spent the entire first four hours trying to come up with a project idea with my team — four hours! That can feel like years in the hackathon time scale. To help you make the most of your time if you’ve never come up with a hackathon project idea before, we outline below strategies for finding an idea and strategies for fleshing out the idea.

Finding an Idea

  1. Get meta and search the web for “hackathon project ideas”. Weird tip, but there’s plenty of people who have asked this question on forums, posted on social media, or written listicles about this exact dilemma. I wish I had thought of this at my first hackathon! A lot of the projects listed might seem wildly out of reach or not applicable to the hackathon, but that’s okay; just use them as inspiration.
  2. Use the prize categories. These can range anywhere from “Best Mobile Hack” to “Best Use of AWS” to “Best Digital Art”. Focusing on the medium, rather than the problem, can be an approach that inspires a new idea. If you narrow your range of options from “any project involving technology” to “any project involving the Google Maps API”, you suddenly have an easier time thinking of projects that fit the description.
  3. Talk to company representatives. This is a tip I received from an experienced older student when I was at my second-ever hackathon. Companies from Lyft to MongoDB will have developer advocates (whose job is to help students at hackathons!) who can help you think of ways to integrate their tech into a project. You can ask, “What was [this API] built for?”, or “How have you seen [this API] used?”, or even “What’s a way you’ve never seen [this API] used?”
  4. Look to solve niche, tiny problems that contribute to a larger problem. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to completely reduce food waste in your home country in one weekend, but you could build an application that alerts you about your food’s expiration date as a way to reduce food waste in the short-term.

Scoping the Idea

If you’re new to the concept of scoping a project, it just means that you choose which features you have to build, which ones would be nice to build, and which ones you should scrap for now. Example: if you were building a car, you need four wheels, although it would be really nice to have a GPS system. If you want to be done with the car any time this year, maybe skip trying to give it birds’ wings.

That being said, there are two not-mutually-exclusive approaches (if not more!) to scoping your idea out:

  1. Make it wildly big. Hackathon judges don’t always check to see if you caught every tiny bug or built something that can handle millions of users. So if you want to attempt to build something ambitious and challenging, focus on bringing that to life. You only have so much time, after all!
  2. Or go deep. Maybe your idea isn’t about pushing the bounds of technology as we know it, but you do want to spend as much time making it as robust as it can be. You can focus on learning how to make it scalable, how to secure it from cyberattacks, how to integrate design principles to enhance the user’s experience, or how to write clear and usable documentation. These are also great assets to mention in your demo at the end of the hackathon.

Even if project ideation feels a little rough at first, you’ll learn a little more about what makes a good idea over time. So jump in and get started!

Anything else?

Always feel free to come to our organizers with questions or suggestions for improvement at athenahacks@gmail.com or on Instagram @athena_hacks. And follow event updates on our Facebook event page!

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AthenaHacks

Southern California's premiere hackathon for marginalized gender identities