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Student programmers code through the night at hackathon

Students from various universities compete in teams to design new programs

For 24 hours, the 225 students attending Hack@Brown had seemingly endless access to pizza, web tools and engineers from some of the top technology companies in the world. Student software creators from approximately 15 other universities made their way to College Hill Friday to join Brown and Rhode Island School of Design students, as well as professional developers, at what organizers called the University’s first student-run, day-long coding marathon.

The conference, which started with a dinner at 4:30 p.m. Friday in Alumnae Hall, gave attendees the opportunity to form teams of four to six people based on ideas for new software projects, which they then designed and presented. Fifty-six projects were created over the 24-hour period and were ultimately judged and given awards.

A group of Brown first-years created the overall winning project, a Snapchat-like application for voice messages, entitled “Squawk.” It had a “great user interface,” said Mackenzie Clark ’14, one of the event’s co-coordinators.

Clark and Molly Long ’15 said 300 participants were randomly selected on a rolling basis from an applicant pool of more than 500 students due to size constraints.

Emma Herold ’17 said though she has not yet taken advanced computer science classes, the high-level engineers provided support and “flipped (complex coding) from being daunting to being fun.”

With Brown students in mind, one team in the hackathon designed a carpooling web application to allow students to post information about upcoming trips so others can join them.

Sorin Vatasoiu ’17, a member of the group working on the app, said the team — which presented its final project Saturday night in MacMillan Hall — worked with an employee from Venmo, an online payment processing company, to include a payment mechanism in its app.

Katie Hsia ’17 said her team drew inspiration from Wayland House’s many windows to design an outdoor “LED waterfall.” Their program activates a unique arrangement of colors on an LED light strip when a user scans his or her Banner ID sequence into a card reader. “Each digit corresponds to a color or gradient,” she explained.

Clark and Long said they had the idea for the Hack@Brown event after a positive experience at the University Hacker Olympics in San Francisco last September.

There, Long said engineers from major technology companies joined teams of undergraduate students, a unique arrangement for a hackathon. She added that while many similar events focus on prizes, the UHO emphasized collaboration and training less skilled hackers.

“It was a very empowering experience, and I felt like I could keep up with everyone,” Long said, adding that UHO participants were able to interact with students from other schools.

Clark added that Hack@Brown included a major design component, building off existing relationships between the Department of Computer Science and RISD.

Professional developers said they stayed with participants until the early hours of Saturday morning, before they left and returned for the final stretch Saturday afternoon.

Bethany Holleran of GTECH, a Providence-based information technology company, provided front-end web development for a group whose application lets Facebook and Twitter users coordinate automatic message posting on their behalf by causes and nonprofits.

“It was very collaborative,” Holleran said of the experience. “It was like I was designing for a client.”

Andrew Oates ’09 and Jimmy Kaplowitz ’07, both engineers at Google, helped a team of hackers create a program that finds books about the user’s current location on a map. For example, if the user opens the app in Providence, a list of books about Providence would be presented.

Some previous hackathon-goers said they found the large, open character of Alumnae Hall with its 300 participants particularly conducive to collaboration.

“This one is a lot bigger in scale,” Jared Moskowitz, a first-year at Tufts University, said of Hack@Brown, comparing it to other hackathons he has attended. “Here, we had a giant room and could hear other teams.”

Moskowitz’s team worked throughout the 24-hour period, producing a Facebook game. “In total, our team probably slept about two hours,” he said.



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