Medina Angarita, M. A.; Nolte, A. (2019): Does it matter why we hack? – Exploring the impact of
goal alignment in hackathons. In: Proceedings of the 17th European Conference on Computer-
Supported Cooperative Work: The International Venue on Practice-centred Computing and the
Design of Cooperation Technologies - Exploratory Papers, Reports of the European Society for
Socially Embedded Technologies (ISSN 2510-2591), DOI: 10.18420/ecscw2019_ep01
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Does it matter why we hack? –
Exploring the impact of goal alignment
Maria Angelica Medina Angarita1, Alexander Nolte1,2
University of Tartu1, Carnegie Mellon University2
Abstract. Time-bounded events such as hackathons have become increasingly popular in
recent years. During these events participants typically form teams, exercise fast prototype
development, challenge themselves to innovate, practice new skills, collaborate with
diverse team members, and compete against other teams. Hackathon organizers have a
certain vision in mind about which outcome they would like to achieve and design the event
based on this vision. Participants on the other hand do not necessarily share the same
vision and come with their own goals and aspirations. While work in related fields suggests
that it is important for goals of organizers and participants to align in order to achieve them
this might be different in hackathons due to their unique setup. Drawing from literature we
identified potential goals of organizers and participants and conducted a case study of
three hackathons focusing on the alignment of goals between organizers and participants.
Our findings indicate that the goals of organizers and participants did not align in all cases,
that goal awareness on the part of the organizers appears may have a stronger impact on
goal achievement and that hackathons appear to have inherent characteristics that can
materialize even when not planned for.
Hackathons are time-bounded events during which participants gather in teams and
attempt to complete a project of interest to them (Pe-Than et al., 2019). Originating
from coding competitions in the early 2000s, such events have garnered increased
interest from both practitioners and researchers as evident by the large number of
global events taking place every weekend
and the emergence of academic events
focusing on the topic (Pe-Than et al., 2018). This increase in interest has led
hackathons to proliferated into various domains ranging from corporations
conducting internal hackathons (Nolte et al., 2018) and higher education
institutions (Kienzler and Fontanesi, 2017) to civic engagement groups (Hartmann
et al., 2018; Henderson, 2015) and (online) communities (Angelidis et al., 2016).
Within those domains, individuals organize hackathons with different goals in mind
such as public engagement to raise awareness and advocacy (Taylor and Clarke,
2018), tackling civic and environmental issues (Baccarne et al., 2014; Porter et al.,
2017), fostering innovation (Briscoe and Mulligan, 2014), creating technology
(Stoltzfus et al., 2017), expanding or creating networks of interested individuals
(Möller et al., 2014), spreading knowledge about technologies (Nandi and
Mandernach, 2016) and others.
The aforementioned goals are often communicated to potentially interested
individuals prior to the hackathon in the form of marketing material which contains
a short summary of the overall theme of the hackathon as well as core
organizational details such as place and time. More detailed information is typically
delivered in the form of an introductory presentation at the event including “an
overview of the event, any rules and regulations, and themes and goals” (Decker
et al., 2015).
The reasons for participants to go to a hackathon, however, do not necessarily
match those of the organizers. While participants might share similar goals such as
learning, inducing social change, building a product and finding a team to work
with, they sometimes also participate in hackathons for glory, free pizza, finding
employment and winning prices (Briscoe and Mulligan, 2014). In the context of
game jams for example, fun is a key reasons for (re-)attendance (Arya et al., 2013).
This points towards a potential disparity between the goals of organizers and
participants that has not been investigated in depth in existing work on hackathons.
We address this gap by asking the following research question:
RQ1: How do the goals of hackathon organizers and participants align?
Moreover, it is not clear whether it is inevitably necessary for goals of organizers
and participants to be aligned in order for both groups to achieve them and to
perceive a hackathon as a satisfying experience. There are hints towards the
necessity of goals alignment in the work conducted by Hou and Wang (2017) in
the context of a civic data hackathon. They found tension between two intertwined
goals: helping with data driven work and learning with the purpose of getting
involved in the work of NPOs. Conflicts in this case were resolved by brokers.
Literature on project management also suggests that goal alignment is important
Hackathons organized by the largest hackathon league alone register more than 65.000 students among more
than 200 events each year (MLH, https://mlh.io/about)
for project success (Skulmoski and Hartman, 1999) and that goal alignment enables
the achievement of performance outcomes (Stephen and Coote, 2007). Similarly,
work in the context of work groups suggests that “a basic coordination problem in
the management of groups is to increase alignment of personal goals with the group
goals” (Zhang and Chiu, 2012), pointing out that it is important for individuals to
share their goals with their group and achieve goal alignment to succeed.
Correspondingly, goal misalignment has been found to cause conflict within groups
in the context of joint software reviews where issue resolution can be affected by
differences between goals of different reviewers (Kingston et al., 2000). These
contexts however are considerably different from hackathons in that work groups
members are bound by contracts and common social norms while this is not the
case in hackathons where participants are not necessarily familiar with each other
before the event. In addition, hackathons might have inherent characteristics that
might foster certain goals simply due to the format, such as networking as pointed
out by Drouhard et al. (2016). To further investigate this aspect, we will also ask
the following research question:
RQ2: How does goal alignment influence goal achievement at hackathons?
In order to answer these two research questions, we conducted a qualitative case
study covering three hackathons. Our results indicate that organizers and
participants of the hackathons we studied shared some common goals such as
networking and learning. Digging deeper, however, we found that the specifics of
these goals to be different between organizers and participants e.g. related to being
interested in learning different skills. We also found indication that goal alignment
was not necessarily a prerequisite for goal achievement, but instead, goal awareness
could improve goal achievement. We also found indications for the hackathon
format having inherent characteristics which can contribute to the achievement of
certain goals without explicit planning.
There are a number of reasons why individuals organize and participate in
hackathons as pointed out in the introduction. Based on a review of relevant
literature in IEEE Explorer, ACM Digital Library and Semantic Scholar, we
developed a coding scheme that covers goals for hackathons in various contexts
(c.f. Table 1 for an overview). These goals can be roughly divided into professional
(A) and personal goals (B). We consider goals as professional when they can
directly influence the career of an individual such as learning a specific skill this
individual can use during her/his everyday work. In addition to the goals we
identified from related work we discovered additional goals during our analysis.
We will discuss them together in the following.
One goal commonly found in hackathons is networking (Briscoe and Mulligan,
2014) which can be broken down into professional networking (A3) with the aim
to further an individual’s career (A5) or into a personal goal to meet new people
(B1). Learning is also often cited as a motivation for individuals to organize and
participate in hackathons (Saravi et al., 2018) since hackathons have been found to
support knowledge exchange (Ghouila et al., 2018) and foster collaborative
learning (Porras et al., 2018). Learning can again be perceived as a professional
(A4) or personal goal (B5).
Hackathons are also often organized in the context of entrepreneurship (Beltrán,
2017). It thus common for participants of hackathons to focus on creating a
prototype (A1) and founding a start-up after a hackathon has ended (A2).
Furthermore, it might be interesting for them to see what other participants are
working on (A6). Moreover, individuals with a specific start-up idea in mind might
also want to seek potential investors (A7) or individuals that are interested in
working together with them (A8). All of the aforementioned goals are related to the
professional development of the respective participants.
Hackathons are however not only a means of promoting individual careers and
developing start-up companies. Participants also often come to a hackathon because
they are fun (B4) events (Calco and Veeck, 2015), because participants are
interested in the experience (B3), or they perceive it to be a personal challenge (B2).
Table 1. Coding scheme
A Professional Goals
A1 Developing an idea into a
Briscoe and Mulligan, 2014; Trainer et al.,
A2 Creating a startup
Cobham et al., 2017; Decker et al., 2015
Briscoe and Mulligan, 2014; Nandi and
Briscoe and Mulligan, 2014; Ghouila et al.,
A5 Professional development
Cobham et al., 2017
A6 Seeing new ideas
Deducted from analysis
Briscoe and Mulligan, 2014
Briscoe and Mulligan, 2014
B Personal Goals
B1 Meeting new people
Komssi et al., 2015; Taylor and Clarke, 2018
B2 Personal challenge
Deducted from analysis
B3 Having a new experience
Deducted from analysis
B4 Having fun
Arya et al., 2013; Calco and Veeck, 2015;
Saravi et al., 2018
Nandi and Mandernach, 2016; Porras et al.,
To answer the research questions described in the introduction we conducted a case
study of three different hackathons in two Northern European countries (c.f. Figure
1 for some impressions). We selected hackathons that were similar in scope in terms
of number of days, number of participants and type of audience (c.f. table 2 for an
overview). The type of hackathon we studied was catalytic (Drouhard et al., 2016).
The style of the work environment was competitive, and teams could win prizes
that would allow them to continue working on their projects after the hackathon
had ended. However, didactic talks, professional development and the pursuit of
impact were also part of the hackathons.
Table 2. Hackathon anatomy
The theme of hackathon 1 (H1) was to develop innovative bio-technical products
with the possibility of winning prizes that would allow teams to continue working
on their projects after the hackathon. This weekend long event was attended by
more than 40 students, researchers and entrepreneurs. It started with design
workshop held by the organizers before the participants began working on their
ideas and prototypes. Hackathon 2 (H2) focused on sustainability and ecological
impact. This weekend long event hosted 37 participants including students and
entrepreneurs who developed prototypes and competed for prizes that would allow
them to continue working on their projects. Hackathon 3 (H3) was part of a larger
effort in that similar hackathons with the same theme organized by the same group
of people took place simultaneously in over 100 locations. H3 aimed to solve data
visualization, hardware and other prototyping challenges related to space
exploration. During this weekend long hackathon, 36 participants including
students and enthusiasts gathered in teams and collaborated with each other to
develop technical solutions for the aforementioned challenges. Each hackathon
thus had the development of a technical artifact at its core.
Figure 1. Stills of hackathon 1 (top right), hackathon 2 (left), and hackathon 3 (bottom right).
We conducted semi-structured retrospective interviews with organizers and
participants at each aforementioned hackathons. This approach appeared to be
feasible since we are interested in studying the perception of participants and
organizers of hackathons on their individual goals and whether or not they have
been achieved. Similar designs have been successfully applied in other exploratory
studies on hackathons (Page et al., 2016; Nolte et al., 2018).
For the interviews we developed an interview script focusing on goal alignment
and goal achievement. The themes of the interview were:
Goals: The aims of hackathon organizers and participants related to their
careers and their personal interests (e.g. What were your professional
goals for this hackathon?)
Goal assessment: The metrics participants and organizers applied to
assess their goal achievement (e.g. What goals did you achieve?)
Technology: The tools participants used to cooperate with each other.
(e.g. What tools did you use to collaborate with your teammates?)
Hackathon attendance: How many times participants have been to a
hackathon before (e.g. Is it your first time at a hackathon?)
Hackathon sustainability: Whether participants are planning to continue
working in their projects after the event has ended (e.g. Do you think you
will continue working on your idea?)
Background information: Educational and professional history (e.g. Tell
me about your educational background.)
The interview script was piloted with one hackathon participant and one
organizer. Based on this pretest we adjusted the interview script to ensure the
feasibility, flow and appropriateness of the questions. We selected at least one
organizers and multiple participants for our study. The selection of suitable
participants was based on their background (students, entrepreneurs), hackathon
experience (first timers and experienced hackathon participants), locality
(individuals that live in a place for a long time and individuals that recently moved)
and whether or not they pitched an idea at the hackathon (c.f. Table 3 for an
Table 3. Demographic profile of the participants and organizers
P1, P5, P6,
After transcribing all interviews one of the authors manually coded the
interviews using the coding scheme we derived from literature (c.f. Table 1). We
followed a deductive coding procedure starting with the pre-defined codes adding
categories if necessary (e.g. Personal challenge (B2) in Table 1).
Goal alignment and achievement of hackathon
organizers and participants
During the course of this section we will first elaborate on the goals of hackathon
organizers (O) and participants (P) of each hackathon (H1, H2, H3) based on our
coding scheme (c.f. Table 1). We will then elaborate on their alignment within one
hackathon (RQ1) and the potential impact of the alignment on whether or not goals
were achieved (RQ2). Overall, we found that organizers and participants did not
interact with each other on a regular basis. The organizers mainly focused on the
operation of the hackathon making sure that e.g. the planned schedule would be
followed. Interaction between organizers and participants during the event was
limited to participants asking individual organizers specific questions e.g. about
upcoming activities. Organizers mostly reached participants for coordination
purposes during the event personally (H1, H3) and used Slack (H2).
Teams internally mainly communicated in person using other tools such as
GoogleDrive or Facebook messages mainly to share files. Each team could decide
on their own toolset with no interference by the organizers.
Goal alignment and achievement between the organizer and
participants of hackathon 1 (H1)
The main aim for the organizer (O1) was “to provide the platform for the people
that work in this area, for them to get together” (O1), by creating an environment
for participants to work on their ideas. S/he also aimed for the participants to
expand their network (A3) and to acquire new skills (A4).
The participants, in comparison, mentioned networking (A3) and learning (A4)
as their main goals. For example, P1 mentioned that s/he wanted to “meet people,
speak to them, understand what their point of view is on problems” (P1). It thus
appears as if participants and organizer goals were aligned since both aimed for
participants to expand their own networks and acquire new skills. However, when
looking deeper into those two aspects we identified a number of differences.
For the organizer (O1), networking (A3) meant “to connect students, just
beginners, or early stage student teams with the local startup network” (O1), and
to boost the generation and implementation of ideas related to the theme of the
hackathon. O1 particularly aimed to connect participants with specialists working
at an entrepreneurial center where they could find advice and tools to continue
working on their projects. For participants, however, networking was not linked to
identifying individuals that would support them in continuing to work on their
project. For them, networking was rather related to learning. P1 mentioned for
example that s/he “just wanted to learn new things from new people” (P1).
Similar to networking (A3), we found that learning (A4) initially appeared to be
a mutually shared goal for organizers and participants. However, when looking
deeper we also found that the organizer and participants aimed for different learning
aspects. For the organizer it was important that the participating researchers would
learn how to pitch because s/he thought that “researchers tend to be too
complicated” (O1). The organizer also aimed for the participants to learn about
design thinking (“this whole empathy creating with the potential user or
Conversely, participants wanted to learn about the theme of the hackathon. P1
wanted to learn for her/his professional development “there is some innovation in
biology which I am searching for, and I really want to take part in it” (P1); and P2
was interested in “how we can, for example, improve our lives to be better and to
live longer” (P2).
From the previous analysis it becomes clear that there is a disparity between
organizer and participant goals related to networking (A3) and learning (A4). This
appeared to mainly affect goal achievement on the part of the organizer, since
participants reported to have achieved their goals, for example, P2 was able to learn
about patients with Parkinson’s disease, “for me, it was like a discovery that we can
actually help these people” (P2).
Goal alignment and achievement between the organizers and
participants of hackathon 2 (H2)
For H2, the main goal for the organizers (O1, O2) was “to connect [country1] and
[country2] people who work in tech or in the topic, with the end goal of having
more businesses run by both [country1] and [country2]” (O1). In general, the
organizers thus aimed for the participants to network (A3) by meeting new people
(B1) and then form teams to develop an idea into a prototype (A1), which could
potentially lead to creating a new startup (A2). To foster this last goal, they
“invite[d], like, angel investors, so yeah, we give them the tools and it's always up
to the participants to like use those tools” (O2) thus supporting them to find
The goals of the participants however were much more diverse. Most
participants mentioned that they were interested in learning (A4), P5, P6 and P8
mentioned wanting to develop an idea into a prototype (A1), P1 and P8 were eager
about seeing new ideas (A6). P1 and P5 aimed to find investing opportunities and
investment (A7), P1 hoped to find potential future employees i.e. achieve HR (A8),
P7 and P8 were looking for a new experience (B3) and P1, P6 and P8 participated
for fun (B4). The aim of participants related to learning was generally to learn
“something new” (P5) by working with teammates (P4) or by talking to people at
the hackathon (P6). One participant also wanted to learn more about how to create
a start-up (P2) and improve her/his presentation skills (P2).
All participants reported that they achieved their respective with a few notable
exceptions: P2 reported that s/he did not manage to learn what s/he aimed to learn,
P1 nor P5 did not find investment opportunities, not investors, (A7), and P1 was
not able to achieve HR (A8) by finding potential employees. Finding investors and
investing opportunities – a mutually shared goal between organizers and
participants – was thus not achieved.
Most participants mentioned that they were partially able to achieve their
learning goals while pointing towards multiple potential reasons for not achieving
them. One participant mentioned that “it’s […] very difficult to learn a new skill in
two days” (P7) while another participant stated that “there's always room to learn
more” (P4). Next to these general remarks P2 also stated that it was not possible
for her/him to improve her/his presentation skills because someone else in her/his
team was in charge of pitching. In addition, s/he stated that s/he would have
expected to be taught more about e.g. how to write a business plan to create a start-
up (P2). It would have certainly been possible for the organizers to support these
participants to achieve their goals by planning the hackathon in a different way.
There was thus no direct misalignment between participant and organizer goals but
rather a lack of awareness about specific participant goals on the part of the
organizers which might have resulted in some participants not being able to achieve
their learning goals.
Another issue we found was that one participant was not able to work on her/his
idea because s/he did not find a team and “s/he didn't feel so great about any of the
other ideas so […] s/he just decided to leave” (P6). This could have also been
something that could have been spotted by the hackathon organizers especially
since one of their goals was to support participants to turn their idea into a
For other goals of the organizers such as teams actually creating a start-up it is
not possible to assess them at the end of the hackathon since they need to be
assessed long term.
Goal alignment and achievement between the organizer and
participants of hackathon 3 (H3)
For the organizer of H3 the main goal was to create an environment for people
where they could network (A3) and collaborate on their project ideas (A1). The
participants mentioned that their goals included networking (A3), learning (A4),
meeting new people (B1), having a personal challenge (B2), experiencing
something new (B3), and having fun (B4). Both organizers and participants thus
mentioned networking as one of their primary goals. However, compared to both
previous hackathons, there was not disparity in the respective details of this goal.
Both participants and organizers aimed to foster professional networking with the
aim to support the professional ambitions of the participants.
The organizer mentioned that her/his goal related to networking (A3) might only
have partially been achieved. This perception was based on her/him expecting
students to get together in their free time (“if you think that only the students
between each other will do projects, activities together, then that would be nice”,
O1). Participants however were excited about meeting new peers and potentially
starting long term relationships, for example, P4 wanted to “see more people in my
field, make connections” (P4), and P2 commented that “maybe some other time I
need advice” and s/he could get it from the people s/he met at the hackathon (P2).
Apart from meeting new people, participants were also eager about learning,
having a new experience and a personal challenge. P1 and P2 reported they were
able to achieve these goals, meanwhile, P3 and P4 reported to have achieved all of
them, except for learning (A4). P3 mentioned that s/he wanted to learn more about
public speaking but also noted that her/his anxiety “won’t go away in one second”
(P3) but rather would “get better, like, day by day,” (P3). Finally, P4 wanted to
learn about the hiring processes in companies but eventually did not ask the mentors
– who were recruited by the organizers from local companies – about it. This is
certainly something that the hackathon organizers could foster if they would be
aware of it.
The previously described analysis reveals a number of interesting aspects related
to the question how the goals of hackathon organizers and participants align (RQ1).
Our findings first indicate that the goals of participants and organizers mainly align
with respect to networking and learning. Other goals such as fostering the creation
of start-up companies (A2) were more important for organizers while finding
investments (A7) and having fun (B4) were more important for participants.
However, when looking closer we found that participants and organizers were often
interested in different aspects of networking and learning despite them both
frequently mentioning these two goals. Organizers mainly focused on professional
networking (A3) while participants were mainly interested in getting to know
people on a personal level (B1). Similarly, when it comes to learning, participants
on one hand were interested in learning about a large variety of different aspects
such as creating a start-up, pitching, learning about new ideas and learning about
how to collaborate with a group of people. Organizers on the other hand mainly
focused on pitching, and although they were present throughout the entire duration
of the hackathons, they mainly focused on facilitating operations and making sure
“that everything went smoothly” (O2, H2). They only interacted with participants
when triggered by them. The goals of organizers and participants thus appear to be
well aligned at first sight but were not particularly well aligned when breaking them
down into different aspects of e.g. learning.
Despite this apparent lack of alignment between the goals of organizers and
participants we did however find that most participants reported to have achieved
their goals (RQ2). The goals that they achieved were mainly related to aspects such
as having fun (B4), learning about something new or improving existing skills both
professionally (A4) and personally (B5). The specific aspects of learning that they
reported to have achieved however differed not only between different participants
but also between participants and organizers.
Our analysis also revealed that participants in the same team did not necessarily
share the same goals. Moreover, each team created their own communication and
coordination strategy including the decision which technologies they would use to
communicate and exchange artifacts during the hackathon. These findings are
similar to the ones reported by Trainer et al. (2016) and Lundbjerg et al. (2017). It
should also be noted that teams rarely used technology to communicate. They did
however use tools such as Google Drive and Slack to share artifacts. Ensuring
awareness about tasks and goals was thus fostered by the co-located setting rather
than additional technologies.
The fact that most participants reported to have achieved their respective goals
despite an apparent lack of alignment points to the assumption that some goals are
simply inherent to the nature of hackathons which means that it might not be
required to specifically plan for them. Learning and networking are the two main
examples for this. Both can – according to our study – be achieved simply due to
the nature of hackathons in that people that do not necessarily know each other
before coming together during a hackathon to work on a project idea. Such ideas
often involve working on something that is not necessarily familiar to all team
members which in turn requires individuals to acquire new skills in order to
complete their project and to pitch their project idea to an audience. This finding is
in line with previous work by Warner and Guo (2017) who found that learning for
participants can be incidental (as a consequence of doing), opportunistic (by taking
advantage of the tools and facilities), or from talking to peers and that learning can
thus be an inherent hackathon characteristic. Similar findings were reported by
Drouhard et al. (2016).
That being said we also identified situations in which participants did not
achieve goals such as attracting investment (A7) and creating a start-up (A2)
directly. These specific goals however are very unlikely to be achieved during a
hackathon and should thus be assessed in the months after the event has ended. In
such cases organizers could point out that such goals are unrealistic and that a
hackathon can be a starting point on a longer journey but that reaching these goals
requires longer term investment. This is in line with previous work by Komssi et
al. (2015) who stated that “hackathons by themselves don’t initiate new business,
they require mechanisms in place in order to commercialize their results”.
We also found situations in which participants did not achieve their specific
learning goals despite them having the possibility to do so. One participant wanted
to learn about pitching but someone else in the team pitched their idea instead, one
participant wanted to learn more about start-up creation but there was no specific
advice during the hackathon. Another participant wanted to learn about the hiring
process in companies but did not get to talk to hackathon mentors about it. Those
goals could probably have been achieved if the organizers would have been aware
of them and adjusted the procedure during the hackathon. This points towards goal
awareness on the part of the organizers being more important than actual goal
alignment. To foster goal awareness organizers could in the future e.g. approach
participants and ask them about what they would like to achieve during the
hackathon. This would also organizers to support participants reaching their goals.
The hackathon format itself however provides an opportunity for social interaction
that inherently fosters goals such as networking and learning.
Contrary to Hou and Wang (2017) we did not find any tensions being created by
misaligned goals. Our findings thus also stand in contrast to work in the context of
project management where goal alignment is considered to be an important
prerequisite for project success (Skulmoski and Hartman, 1999) and misalignment
can lead to conflict (Kingston et al., 2000). This contrast however might stem from
the fact that in our case participants in particular were mainly focused on learning
and networking rather than completing a particular project. Both of these goals can
be achieved by individuals during a hackathon without any specific external
support as discussed before.
The aim of this study was to identify goals of hackathon organizers and participants,
their alignment and the potential effects of goal alignment on their achievement.
This particular phenomenon has received limited attention in research so far. It thus
appeared reasonable to conduct an in-depth case study. We do however
acknowledge that despite developing and applying a coding scheme that is
grounded in relevant literature and carefully selecting study participants studying
groups is different hackathons working on different problems with different goals
might yield different results.
Based on the results of this study our aim is to develop a framework of goals which
will serve as a basis for a survey instrument to study the interdependence of the
different identified goals on a larger scale. Our sample for this study will include
similar participants to those we studied thus covering individuals who are going to
hackathons for the first time, individuals who have been to many hackathons,
individuals who have ideas that they want to work on during a hackathon and
individuals who do not. For the upcoming study we will also adjust our research
focus by including the aspect of goal awareness as discussed in the previous section.
We will also use the identified goals as a basis for a of keywords to conduct a
quantitative case study on a larger hackathon database. These two studies combined
will allow us to identify how different goals can influence hackathon outcomes as
well as the perception of hackathon outcomes by participants.
Thanks to all interviewees who donated their time for the sake of this research.
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