When you hear the word "hacker" it may bring to mind images of sinister people plotting to steal private data. But there are also hackers for good--or people who participate in civic hackathons--who come up with ideas to address community challenges. These events, which are usually 48-hours long, are great opportunities to give your time and experience and also get some meaningful insights and takeaways.

So what do you need to do before you step foot in a hackathon? And concurrently what can event organizers do to inspire you to spend your weekend working on the city's challenges? Below area few insights.

Decide Which Hackathon Format and Topic(s) Interest You

Civic hackathons can be focused on a specific problem set, like Scale's San Diego Smart City Hackathon that guided hackers to address Climate Action Plan through four key areas: climate, transportation, utilities, safety. Hackers were asked to answer questions such as "How do we make city owned & operated buildings more energy and water efficient?" and "How do we encourage citizens to ride bikes, walk and use transit more instead of riding in cars alone?"

Alternatively, the ATX Hack for Change in Austin encourages participants to submit their own projects. Over the past four years, hackers have addressed issues like food insecurity, homelessness, mobility and affordability. The top concepts are then pitched to a panel of judges who determine which ideas could be viable solutions.

If you are wanting to create more meaningful outcomes, you may want to choose a development challenge which can last several weeks or months as opposed to a traditional hackathon, which is only a couple of days.

No matter what format you prefer, one thing remains constant.The more real data and technology tools you'll have access to, the better the quality of the outcome.

Benefit from Diverse Perspectives

There is a misconception that hackathons are only for younger techies who know how to code. While that may have been true in the early days, today hackers include project managers, communications specialists, designers and of course entrepreneurs.

The best hackathons invest the time to recruit diverse participants who can create well-rounded teams that can present unique approaches. Sarah Sharif, Event Director of the ATX Hack for Change says, "As organizers of hackathons, it's our duty to invite fresh voices to our events. Powerful products are created when diversity of thought is embraced. Cast that net wide!"

Being around a diverse group has a long list of benefits including helping you to see through a different lens, which can spark new ideas or lead to the next big breakthrough. At a hackathon you can quickly explore new concepts and get instant feedback about your product or service. Also, the people you meet could turn out to be potential partners, employees or even investors.

Enjoy the Power of Promotion

While it's true that you never know who you're going to meet at a hackathon, supporting partners, sponsors and judges are carefully chosen ahead of time. Associating your name and/or your company's brand to a cause they care about is a sure way to make a connection and capture their attention.

Scale co-founder and organizer of smart city hackathon Daniel Obodovski advises, "A hackathon is a great way to showcase your ideas and to demonstrate your team's ability to create results under severe time crunch."

He goes on to say, "There is mutual benefit when cities and entrepreneurs collaborate, but it isn't always natural. When done right cities get a plethora of innovation ideas and both parties get to discover how to work together."

Promotion also extends to the media. Reporters and bloggers are always looking for examples of concepts that make sense in the marketplace while benefiting the common good. The best organizers make sure to promote the projects that demonstrate the power of a hackathon.

Sharif calls that sparkle. "Organizers can get so wound up in their event planning that they can lose track of making sure they are showcasing winning hackers at events or in front of the press. Pushing their stories builds a foundation of support for your next event."

Create the Opportunity to Play

Being 'heads down' in your own company is critical for focus but equally important is creating your own opportunities for inspiration. It can be refreshing to think about solving a challenge that is completely different from what you obsess over every single day.

Obodovski is clear that fun is an important part of what makes a hackathon successful. "This is the chance for entrepreneurs to network, socialize and meet some of the best and brightest in the city. The work part is important but it's so much more than that."

Sharif adds, "As organizers, we have to recognize that hackathons are basically playgrounds. The ability to orchestrate event success is based on balancing project progress and fun. It's up to us to ensure that our attendees are playing with their ideas and smiling while they do it."

Discover Your Hack

There are hackathons happening in every city around the world. One of the largest and most diverse groups is Angel Hack, a female-owned, female-majority company that is helping to drive open innovation of tech products, platforms and brands with extraordinary smarts, scale and speed. Major League Hacking is the official student hackathon league, powering more than 200 weekend-long invention competitions per year with more than 65,000 students.

A hackathon is an invitation to be open to new experiences, to seek out people who are different than you are, a chance to play and brainstorm and enjoy a friendly level of competition that both benefits the community while also benefiting your business. They are great for generating publicity, getting attention around a particular topic, attracting talent and building ad-hoc teams. Check out what is happening in your local area or team with others to start your own. There is no shortage of challenges so get hacking!