For the last 4 years, I’ve been involved with supporting UHack: The University of Tasmania’s annual weekend-long event that sees teams of participants come together to create something innovative. The event runs from Friday evening though to Sunday afternoon, with mentors from various backgrounds providing guidance along the way, culminating in a panel of judges on Sunday afternoon who review the teams’ submissions and ultimately crown the winners.
Historically, UHack has been an in-person event: participants from around Tasmania would gather at the three main UTAS campuses (Hobart, Launceston and Cradle Coast) and work through the weekend to develop their innovation. Mentors would be on-site, with some video conferencing allowing participants in the north of the state to also access mentors who have tended to be concentrated at the Hobart campus.
Of course, given the global COVID-19 pandemic that has affected all of us this year, many events have been disrupted and have needed to move to an online format. UHack also found itself needing to adapt and pivot to a complete online solution ensuring it didn’t disrupt the event activities and submission of entries. The critical impact of this change to the event was on time. The project team needed a technical platform for the event with only weeks to work through the many use cases, build and give access to participants in the lead up to the main event. They also had to ensure that the change didn’t impact the flow of communication and activities, and that all those involved, whatever their role, could come together easily, and with minimal training time, using this platform. The fast pace of the event has relied on physical proximity to bring together multiple roles, deliverables, checkpoints and many largely unnoticed resources – all of which now needed to be accessible, responsive and smooth to replicate the UHack experience in an online environment. And it all had to be set up quickly, as preparation and registration was already in train.
In previous years, even though an in-person event, there have been multiple platforms to capture data across the event: EventBrite for registration, MeetUp for lead up information sessions, DevPost for submitting deliverables. If you’re interested, check out Richard Charnock’s blog about last year’s experience, including a first outing for Teams, primarily as a communication tool. Here’s Richard taking a well earned rest in the “Mentor Pen” in between sessions:
This year, given that all participants would now be remote, the focus was to build a much more integrated solution that reduced the need to move across applications or platforms. The immediate desire was to utilise an education tenant and Microsoft Teams to build out the event, along with as many out of the box apps and features as possible to save time. We will dive deeper later in this blog into the technical journey and platform detail. Firstly, let’s talk about the overall experience of moving a weekend hackathon to a remote competition and experience.
How did a hackathon differ run completely remote?
UHack is a great event. Each year it brings people together with a fantastic sense of community and energy. Participants are students and members of the general public who simply turn up, join groups and head into an intense phase – measurable in hours – to create an idea and develop that into a business model. During this, the event team floor-walk. They pop into rooms and chat to groups to answer questions, address concerns and give updates. It is very much about people coming together.
A key factor for moving this event online was bringing this UHack community together. How do you replicate the communication and team feel through technology?
The immediate answer was Microsoft Teams as the central platform and hub. Teams and channels for the event wide communication, break out social space, questions to the event team, private Teams for each group of participants and spaces for judges, mentors and the event staff to communicate.
If you want to see a little more of what we created within Microsoft Teams, check out our intro sway. The imbedded video will take you on a walkthrough of the various Teams, Channels and Apps that came together to support UHack this year.
What we built was an instant community, and by contrast with the timescales in a conventional organisation for uptake of a social platform, in this instance we needed uptake to be high right away.
What was great to see was that as soon as participants were registered and had access to the platform, there was a lot of activity in the breakout channel looking for a team to join and general discussion. See below for some further thoughts on the overall experience, with further wins and challenges.
The overall platform experiences
Microsoft 365 had several built-in apps and services that not only integrated easily, but enabled some easy wins across the event such as:
- Meetings and Live events – Using Microsoft Teams to support UHack meant that we had a single tool that could handle not just the collaborative requirements to run a hackathon, but also all communications requirements. Both opening and closing ceremonies were held using Live Events, with mentor sessions, information sessions and other sessions that had typically been held face to face in previous years all being held via Teams meetings. This also made it simple to record meetings and live events directly to Microsoft Stream and share them out to all UHack participants.
Here’s one example: the pitch presentation Live Event:
- Bookings – this app was quick to setup and make edits. Having a participant choose a timeslot to meet with a mentor with it, and then automatically book a Teams Meeting in a Mentors calendar, meant less applications for Mentors to access and learn. They simply followed what was in their calendar and only needed to know how to join Microsoft Teams meetings.
- Having Bookings create timeslots from free/ busy time in a Mentors calendar was easy to work with. We simply advised each mentor to setup their availability and block out breaks and this fed into Bookings as meeting timeslots.
- Microsoft Forms was used to create a scoring system for judges. Having this as a tab in the Judges Team general channel simplified their experience with a single space to access and complete the work. It was easy at the end to export everything into Excel and use a pivot table to manipulate data to create winners across divisions.
- Communication through posts in the event wide channel made it easy to broadcast updates and provide information to all participants, or to communicate directly in either the judges or mentors’ spaces.
- Using tags in Microsoft Teams was a great way to alert the event team as a group of people, rather than having to type all their names to @mention. Simple feature with big impact.
- Having everything combined through Microsoft Teams meant we all ‘lived’ in one place and had easy access to all aspects across the platform for the event weekend.
A fast-paced event brings with it challenges. Some of these we had to rapidly overcome to ensure the event ran smoothly and activities were delivered:
- UHack has participants from a diverse range of backgrounds, for many of whom English is their second language. This means communication must be clear and follow-up questions must adequately support the participant. This is much easier to handle face-to-face where you can gauge if they understand or need more support. This was harder with online posts in Teams. We really had to think about language in an announcement or instructions and if it was a clear explanation. When people posted a question, at times the reply post wasn’t always resolving their confusion and a Teams call was needed to discuss further.
- The importance of clear roles across the event. At times we had several people responding to posts. It was potentially unclear which name was the person to assist. We did have display names clearly indicate who was staff, mentor, participant etc, but there may have been too many people posting and replying which should be more streamlined in events like these.
- The quality of data was a challenge that increased stress and challenges leading up to the event opening ceremony. You can clarify an email address when a participant registers standing at a desk; however when the event is 100% remote the data input is critical. Several typo’s in registration data lead to bounce backs and some manual follow up.
- We used a separate education tenant for the event and provided everyone accounts. This separate profile and account worked well for Live Events and consistent data, however it can mean people don’t log in to that account and see activity. Having a guest account enables people to tenant switch and notifications in their Microsoft Teams application are more obvious.
- And finally, of course a key challenge as with many events and technology is human error. People not understanding the basics of Microsoft Teams led to replies not connected to posts and thus not being seen, or not checking their calendar and joining a mentor meeting, and in the ‘assignments’ area of Teams some not clicking ‘submit’ on their final entry. A lot of lessons were learned by everyone involved in the event.
As ever, there were challenges: many of these were behind the scenes or quickly remediated and we all moved forward.
Without COVID-19, UHack may have shifted forward with slight technical platform innovation. What we have seen in 2020 is a massive shift – a technical revolution. The crisis drove a massive change which everyone involved enthusiastically rolled up sleeves and adopted with minimal hesitation or barriers.
Let’s now dive deeper into how we solved some of UHack’s requirements within the Microsoft 365 ecosystem:
Microsoft 365 Tenant
Given that not all UHack participants are students of UTAS, we weren’t able to use the existing UTAS tenant to support UHack. This was to ensure security and privacy was maintained, but also would have led to longer lead times to develop the UHack platform itself. If we were working in with an existing production tenant that supported an entire university, development of applications, creation of teams and user onboarding would not have bene possible in the time frame available. Luckily, work on the previous year’s UHack event has meant that a separate UHack tenant had already been setup and was sitting idle ready for us to use. This tenant is an education tenant: this ended up being crucial, as we used education-specific Teams features to support assignment submissions for UHack teams.
To support participants, an Office 365 A1 licence was sufficient. This gave them access to Teams, Microsoft Stream, online Office apps, and everything else required during the event. A1 was also sufficient for Judges, however for Mentors who needed to be bookable via the Microsoft Bookings app, they required an A3 license. The tenant had 25 of these licenses available to support this.
In previous years where UHack was an in-person event, participants would turn up to one of three UHack locations and “manually” register their teams, or even create\join a new team on the day. Transitioning the event to being fully online meant that this would no longer be possible, and users would need to be onboarded to Microsoft Teams prior to the commencement of activities.
Onboarding required a number of things to occur:
- Create accounts for participants in Azure Active Directory
- Add participants to specific groups to ensure they received appropriate Office 365 licensing, and to automatically add them to the right Teams
- Communicate login and other pertinent information to each participant via email
How was this achieved?
Since its inception, UHack has used Eventbrite to support user registration for UHack, and this year was no different. This year however, data from Eventbrite was the primary input data to PowerShell scripting developed to support user onboarding and email communications. The first step was to create all participants in Azure AD:
Key actions the script completed for each participant:
- Set initial password for participants
- Force participants to reset their password to something unique at first login
- Appended “(Participant)” to display name to make it easier to identify Participants in Teams during the UHack event
- Set Department to “UHack Participant” (used for dynamic group membership and automatic licensing\Teams membership)
- Alternate email address attribute set to email address used to register via Eventbrite: supporting easy password reset without requiring a participant to register a mobile\email address for password reset
Now that participant accounts had been created, we now needed to get an individualised email out to every participant letting them know how to login, where to find additional information, and how to get in touch with UHack event staff if they had any problems. Initially, mail merge was investigated as a way to achieve this, but was dismissed due to complexity (who remembers how to mail merge?).
Instead, PowerShell was again the winner and would allow us to use the same master participant list that was used to enable users in Azure AD. To do this, the script used for user enablement above was modified to send an email instead.
This did require email content to be in HTML format, fortunately sites like https://wordtohtml.net/ make it easy to design in plain test and output the HTML you need:
Once we had HTML content ready to go, the following script was used:
With the resultant email sent to all participants:
Given the radical shift in how UHack would be delivered in 2020, we wanted to make sure that we were able to give participants as much information about what Microsoft Teams was, how it was being used to support UHack, and how to login to the UHack tenant. Links to resources that would achieve this were imbedded in the welcome email: Microsoft Sway was used to create a presentation that explained what was different about UHack this year, and to provide an asset that was dynamic and updateable in the leadup and during the UHack weekend.
In addition to Sway, Camtasia was used to record and edit a first time login video for UHack participants. In under an hour, Camtasia allowed us to record, edit and publish a professional looking video that helped removed friction from the first-time sign in process:
In delivering UHack as a pure online event for 2020, there was a desire to provide a single location within Teams where participants could check the schedule, get helpful tips and info, and provide a way to find more details on mentors. Given the relatively short amount of time available to come up with a solution, we needed to find something that could meet our requirements with a minimal amount of development.
Earlier in the year, Microsoft released a template Power App that aimed to provide a user-friendly experience to connect users with information about a crisis. We had deployed this for a number of organisations as a way to communicate during the COVID crisis, presenting it as an app within the Microsoft Teams client.
It would save a lot of time if we could use this as the base of an app for UHack, and that’s precisely what we did. Here is what the Crisis app looks like when deployed with defaults:
And here’s what our UHack App looked like. Company News was repurposed as the UHack schedule, World news (which was initially an RSS feed from the WHO) was repurposed to take an RSS feed of any social content that mentioned UHack 2020. Emergency Contacts became Mentors, a single location where participants could see all mentors listed, click on a link to read more about a Mentor (SharePoint site) or make a Mentor booking with the Bookings app:
Content within the app was controlled with a corresponding Admin app that allowed event staff to update the schedule, add helpful tips, links, or anything else for the duration of the event:
With minimal effort, we were able to take an off the shelf app template and turn it into something that supported our needs for UHack.
One other use case we wanted to support was the ability for participants to ask questions, get an automated answer, but also have a mechanism to ask a person if they were unable to find the answer they were after. Building chat bots within Teams is relatively straight forward, with lots of resources available to help you along the way:
Within the time constraints we were working with, we were able to build a bot that presented useful information to participants:
As well as ensuring any queries the bot couldn’t answer were directed to the Events Team to action:
UHack 2019 was the first year that we deployed Microsoft Bookings to support booking mentors, but this year it was more important than ever given that all participants were remote. In addition, the Bookings app in 2020 automatically created the booking as a Teams meeting – ensuring participants and mentors had a quick and seamless way to meet throughout the weekend:
When participating in UHack, each team is required to submit the following:
- A Business Model Canvas
- A 2-minute pitch video
- Their innovation submission files
In previous years, UHack submissions were handled by Devpost. This year, however, given that the event was being held on Microsoft Teams, we wanted to find a way to support submissions natively within Microsoft Teams. We also needed to ensure we had a mechanism in place that would allow us to get submitted files prepared ready for judging: all while taking into account that all participants, event staff and judges were scattered throughout Australia.
Given that UHack was being held on an education specific Microsoft 365 tenant, this meant that we had access to Assignments in Microsoft Teams to support UHack submissions. We created a single UHack Final Submissions Team, added a single team captain per hacking group to the Team, and created a single UHack 2020 Submission assignment within the team. We took this approach as not every UHack participant needed to submit an assignment: one submission per group. If we had added an assignment to each Teams private Team, every participant would have had the ability to submit, making collecting submissions much harder. Introducing the concept of a team captain and a single UHack submissions teams solved this. Assignment submission also provided a mechanism to ensure everyone had access to the same template documents and instructions, in this case a Word template for the Business Model Canvas:
Once all Teams had submitted their work, our next challenge was how to get these files to a Team created specifically for the judges. Whilst it was possible to manually click on each and every submission, download submitted files and upload to another location, we needed something that was quicker and more streamlined. To achieve this, we discovered where submitted files are actually stored in SharePoint, and synced this library to our own PCs:
From here, it was much easier to review submitted files, format as required and copy across to the synced SharePoint library from the Judges Team. This allowed the remote Judges to access files quickly and easily:
Some closing reflections…
It wasn’t until the dust had settled and all the post-hackathon wrap-ups had been done that we realised how big a change we had made. Of course, we had built a model of one aspect of the “hybrid workplace” we are all now starting to envision. But more than that –
First, in terms of space: once UHack escaped the limitations of physical space based on all the people and all the action being in one place, it actually became, in principle, boundless. The event serves to promote innovation in Tasmania, but by the time UHack 2021 comes around we’re sure there will have been much discussion of how to attract attendees, mentors and others from outside Australia, never mind the state.
Second, in terms of time: we transformed UHack from an onsite event (one that only worked if you literally went to it) to an online event in a matter of weeks. This took a lot of skill and focus, and a certain level of sleep-deprivation: but it also demonstrates what can be achieved with the ever-improving tools available in Office365. It will only get easier.
And of course the world is now full of online events replacing their onsite predecessors. Commsverse, Ignite, M365 May, TeamsFest… these are not just replacements – they are in many ways improvements, certainly in terms of accessibility, participation, scope and choice. We can’t wait to be involved in the next one. We’ll see you there!