On Sunday, October 22nd, a group of three college students won thousands of dollars in prizes for creating software that can track movement of objects in the real world by measuring interference with Wi-Fi signals. This technology is something we may see everywhere in the coming decades, with potential applications in everything from security to event organization. The winning team, along with the 700 other computer scientists, mathematicians, designers, and engineers who joined them in Cambridge for a weekend, had just finished the third annual hackathon at Harvard University, justly dubbed HackHarvard.
Many people, upon hearing the word “hackathon” for the first time, picture a bunch of antisocial nerds crowded around computers for days on end trying to crack into Ben and Jerry’s website to figure out when the next ice cream flavor will be released (June 14th, by the way—you’re welcome). This is only mostly correct.
In reality, hackathons are opportunities for STEM gurus with similar interests to get together and build whatever project they want within a set time period. For HackHarvard, it was 36 hours. “How is that different from what I’m doing in CS15?” you might ask. Well, many of the projects that teams work on in hackathons actually go on to become real-world products.
Because of this, all of the big-name tech companies come to hackathons, not only to recruit, but also to get hackers to use their products. At HackHarvard, Google alone was giving out hundreds of dollars to whomever could use their new machine learning API the best, Amazon tried to get people to store their data on Amazon web services, and Microsoft promoted its Azure Cloud Computing. Every participant gets a plethora of free technology-related services to use in their project or simply to take home and save for ideas they have later.
The variety of ideas at this year’s HackHarvard was truly incredible. From a real-time parking spot finder, to a robot that can automatically train dogs, to an app that lets you play flappy bird by just saying “flap” into your computer’s speakers, the projects showcased a wide diversity of interests. Yet everyone had the utmost respect for each other’s ideas, and the atmosphere was very much one of collaboration. And if none of the other hackers could help you with a problem you were having, you could just head on over to Google’s booth to get assistance from one of their top engineers.
For Brown students especially, the one-hour commute to Harvard is doable and worthwhile, given the large number of prizes and amount of learning that one can get out of the HackHarvard experience. Brown was the most highly represented non-Boston-based school at the event, with over a dozen Brunonians doing their best to invent and create.
So, the next time you have a weekend free and are feeling especially creative, consider a hackathon! Or, if that’s not your style, at the very least try to minimize that confused and concerned look on your face the next time one of your friends tells you they’re going to go “hack.”