The rise of hackathons

The rise of hackathons

Geek paradise or a valuable business enterprise? The hackathon phenomenon has risen fast, proving its value across a range of industries – air travel among them.

It’s the era of the developer. No longer just confined to the relentless task of churning out lines of code, the modern developer or hacker has come well and truly out of the coding closet and now plays a vital role in contributing to the design and roadmap of new products and solutions across all spectrums of industry.

And where better to observe the skills and tenacity of developers than by throwing them into an arena with other developers and designers to participate in a marathon development think tank … in other words, a hackathon.


Hackathons are fun events, held over a 24 or 48 hour period, usually at a weekend, where teams of developers, User Experience designers and product managers – in fact anyone who’s interested – are crammed together in a venue.

They’re left to brainstorm new ideas and develop working prototypes for a chance of winning a prize, or in some cases, a chance to develop their idea with the backing of the host organization.

Hackathons are on the rise, having  captured the imagination of companies across all industries from healthcare to insurance, car manufacturing, social media and IT, to name a few.

Some hackathons are open to a wide audience of participants from perhaps a particular industry or even country location or university, with a designated theme to try and trigger new ideas that can be developed into products for the host company.


In-house hackathons are also becoming the norm with organizations to stimulate a more innovative environment for employees and to discover new product ideas or new features for existing products, or perhaps even to re-engineer products for new audiences.

Facebook is one example of an organization that holds internal hackathons on a monthly basis.

Big in travel

“Hackathons are becoming increasingly popular for airports, airlines and other travel related operations,” says Kevin O’Sullivan, Lead Developer for the SITA Lab.

“They’re  anxious to eke out any new spark of inspiration that will lead to the latest technological innovation to enhance their customers’ experience or improve operations and staff efficiency.”


IATA chose the Tnooz THack hackathon in Hamburg in 2015 to expose the first release of its New Distribution Capability (NDC) Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) as part of its initiative to transform the airline shopping experience for itineraries and ancillary services.

An earlier Tnooz hackathon in London was in fact won by SITA Lab, with an entry by SITA Lab’s O’Sullivan taking gold prize. The seven day event saw the Lab deliver a voice controlled travel booking engine, using APIs from a number of companies.

In 2016, IATA organized a hackathon in Berlin – again to target business travel and its NDC standard, an event supported and attended by SITA.

Speaking at the hackathon, Dominique El Bez, SITA’s VP Portfolio Management for Messaging, said: “What you can be sure of at a hackathon is that you'll always be surprised.

“This hackathon provides the opportunity to look at NDC from a different angle ─ to think creatively for the benefit of airlines and their passengers.” 

Some airlines have even hosted hackathons on an aircraft in flight. The finalists of the Wearable World Hackathon two years ago got to test out their wearable creations on a transcontinental American Airlines flight from New York City to San Francisco. A moving train between two American cities also provided another interesting venue.


Open airport hackathons focus predominantly on exploring new ideas to enhance the traveler experience – be it pre-departure, in transit or on arrival.

O’Sullivan again: “Airports need to keep up with the increasing passenger demand for instant access to the latest flight information, navigation assistance and dining and shopping options, and all from the convenience of smartphones or smartwatches or other digital channels.”

Changi Airport’s inaugural hackathon uncovered some inspired innovations that employed kiosks, including one which allowed personal communications between travelers in the airport and city centre attractions.

Another winning entry was an Automated Form Kiosk (AFK) that allows travelers to scan their boarding pass and passport to generate a prefilled immigration card.

Winning ideas at Singapore Airlines App Challenge included an app that aims to improve passengers’ resting patterns on board, and an intelligent virtual inflight assistant.

Other finalists tackled the challenges of group decision making and social media collaboration and communication within travel groups and destination experts.

APIs at SITA’s are continually in demand at global airport and airline hackathons.

They provide access to all types of sample airport and flight data including beacon locations, gate status, baggage information, weather, flight tracking, and mobile boarding passes. See ‘API advances’.

Hackathons also give SITA teams a chance to network with the developer community and see the innovative ways that SITA’s APIs are being deployed.

A concept that proves very popular with participants at hackathons is the availability of beacons and the SITA Common Use Beacon Registry. The beacons and Beacon Registry APIs enable the teams to utilize a simulated airport zone within a hackathon venue and retrieve lists of beacons and beacon locations deployed at this pseudo airport.


With all the time and design constraints on in-house development projects, company hackathons are an excellent way of providing creative space allowing developers – from the intern or graduate to the more senior engineers – to try out their own ideas or new technologies in a more relaxed and fun environment.

The events promote more dynamic collaboration across multifunctional teams that may include other skillsets such as UX design and marketing expertise. Some companies use hackathons are part of their induction training for this purpose.

Hackathons may not produce the latest, greatest product or solution that will change the world or be practical or cost-effective to implement, but they could lead to the discovery of a clever little utility or feature that will contribute to the next stage of a product release, as in the case of the ‘Like’ button in Facebook.

‘Here to stay’

“Hackathons are here to stay and have fast become an integral part of the event calendar for product development and marketing teams across all industries,” adds O’Sullivan.

“As hackathons in the air transport industry gather momentum, more and more they’re playing a significant role in the development of digital strategies for airlines and airports.”

IATA’s NDC hack, Berlin 2016

With New Distribution Capability (NDC) offering an alternative to the distribution of airline and ancillary products – bringing the added advantage of enabling more personalized itinerary planning – it’s no wonder that IATA targeted business travel for its Berlin-based NDC hackathon this year.

It’s an obvious area that will benefit hugely from a more simplified and direct relationship with suppliers.

Aiming to transform

NDC is a travel industry supported program, launched by IATA, for the development and market adoption of a new XML-based data transmission standard to simplify the way air products are retailed to corporations, leisure and business travelers.

SITA was delighted to support the hackathon which required developers to incorporate the IATA NDC Application Programming Interface (API) into their designs that aimed to transform the corporate booking process or the travel experience for business travelers.

SITA’s range of APIs were available to complement the NDC API, providing access to all types of airport and flight data including beacon locations, gate status, baggage information, weather, flight tracking, and mobile boarding passes.

‘Amazing stuff’

Many teams implemented chatbots after attending the event’s workshop overview of chatbots, along with the open source technologies available to create chatbots.

Festive Road’s Aurélie Krau from pointed out that by giving the traveler more control, the more personalized and streamlined their travel experience will be, leading to happier travelers and more efficiency and indirect cost reductions in the business travel sector.

Festive Road is the travel and meetings agency which partnered with IATA to become the eyes and ears of the NDC project for the global business travel community.

Leading the SITA team at the event was Dominique El Bez, SITA’s VP Portfolio Management for Messaging, who said: “NDC is expected to change the overall commercial activities of the industry.

“At this hackathon, we will have people thinking differently, taking the opportunity of having access to APIs, making use of them in different ways and creating amazing stuff.”

As a strategic industry partner of IATA, SITA participate in the Distribution Data Exchange Working Group, dealing with the complex challenges of defining IATA’s NDC processes for use between interline and code share partners.

Watch the NDC hackathon 2016 SITA interview

With Dominique El Bez, SITA’s VP Portfolio Management for Messaging.

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