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How To Plan a Successful Datathon

Learn everything you need to know about datathons, from their benefits, how to organize one, and more.
Updated Feb 2023  · 6 min read

What is a datathon?

Similar to hackathons, a datathon is an event where participants gather to solve practical problems through the application of data science tools and techniques, by working together in teams to generate insights and potential solutions.

The benefits of a datathon

With the world transforming into a digital one, the idea of a datathon is fast becoming mainstream. The benefits of a datathon, whether organized by a company or by a volunteer group, are extensive.

Encourages teamwork

These events create a special sense of purpose to achieve something greater collectively, drawing out creativity and new perspectives that often emerge when working intensely in a time-bound setting.

Fosters collaboration

In a traditional hierarchical structure, decision-making is based on positional authority. In a horizontal setting, decision-making is based on competence and value contribution, attributes commonly found in high-performing teams. This structure also promotes transparency and candor, requiring team members to exhibit a higher degree of emotional intelligence. More time is devoted to issue identification and less on worrying about being “kept in the loop”. Teams tend to be more autonomous, depending on one another to carry through on commitments. A fluid environment is created where ideas are shared openly and the steps taken to test an idea happen quickly. Some ideas “fail quickly” to produce valuable learnings, while other ideas proceed to the next phase of viability.

Promotes innovation

A traditional corporate culture, particularly that found in the oil and gas sector, is a sensibility that promotes safety and reliability, critical to be successful in this industry. However, such a mindset inadvertently stifles innovation. It is a mindset that fears “what could go wrong” rather than fearing if something good does not occur. In a datathon, the mindset is an entrepreneurial one.

How is a datathon organized?

Firstly, you should make sure these key components are in place:

  • a well-structured dataset that can drive insights on a business problem that needs solving
  • a positive environment for participants to learn new data skills
  • a chance for participants to make professional connections, and for everyone to have fun!

Secondly, datathons can be run in-person or completely virtual. A participant has the best experience when the event is inclusive and welcoming to both beginners and seasoned data scientists alike. Anchor the event around informative and engaging meetings, which could include a kick-off event to let participants know what to expect, an opening ceremony to start the competition, and a closing ceremony to celebrate its conclusion. Events in between can drive up engagement from a learning and networking perspective, such as through learning workshops and social networking gatherings. Communications throughout the event are kept high through postings on the event’s social media channels, while near-real-time communications is achieved through using IRC-style platforms like Slack, Discord, or Teams.

Sponsorship not only provides much-needed financial support, but it also adds credibility to your event and sponsors can also offer prizes to motivate your participants.

It is human nature to seek out fun activities. Gamification is the application of game playing (e.g. point scoring, competition with others, rules of play) to encourage engagement and motivation. It can also lead to a different, even unexpected, way of solving a business problem. To be inclusive, it should not be the primary focus but is a delightful feature of a datathon.

How long should a datathon be?

Datathons can be held over the course of a single day, over multiple days or a weekend, or even span across a month. It’s important to choose the right time period to sustain engagement throughout your event. In-person events are wonderful for building lasting network connections, though virtual events can attract a broader, even global, audience. Longer events also require more effort from the planning team, though the effort to plan a successful single-day datathon is similar to the effort needed to plan a multi-day one.

Want to see a datathon in action?

Given that many datathons are now held virtually, all it takes is a Google search to discover a datathon that is accessible to ypu. For example, Women in Data Science (WiDS) hold regular datathons and at DataCamp we hold regular webinars and events that encourage participation.  

DataCamp also gets involved in other datathons, for example, the GTX 2021 – Geothermal datathon which happened between April 20 and June 25, 2021. Hosted in Calgary, Canada, the virtual event attracted people from around the world. Organized by the Society of Petroleum Engineers (Calgary and US Gulf Coast chapters) and Untapped Energy, the datathon was driven by the desire to use real data to solve a real problem, elevate data literacy, and make new professional connections—all while having fun!

I hope this article has helped create excitement about running your first datathon. Good luck!


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