Participating in a hackathon has been on my to-do list for a few years now and the BoxUK event (held at the Cardiff University Student’s Union) offered the opportunity to finally get it scratched off. Luckily I wasn’t the only one in the department interested in attending and so we had a team sorted out before the event itself and even the makings of an idea for an app. It all went rather well.
For those who haven’t come across a hackathon before it’s an event where people involved in app development (programmers, designers, graphical designers etc.) gather together, split in to teams, lock themselves in a room with caffeine and pizza for a day or two and make (or ‘hack’) something. It’s meant to be intense, creative and challenging – a day or two isn’t a long time to make something and this is coupled with long hours and often working with strangers. For people interested in software development and with a high enough caffeine dependency, it’s a pretty cool way to spend a weekend.
My motivation for taking part was simple – I really like programming. Having spent my career to date in academia, I don’t often get to actually make products that people might use. Making something exciting with other people is what I think development should be about, not merely making tools for a job. This offered an opportunity to be really creative with what we do. Studying for a PhD can also be suffocatingly isolating and so working with other people appealed greatly. I haven’t really worked on software with other people – I have always been a solitary coder, so this was set to be an interesting experience. I did have high hopes for the event and it didn’t disappoint.
The brief for this event (referred to as ‘goodhack’) was to create an application which would be for ‘the social good’ – or would benefit society in some way. It could be a website, mobile app, bio-mechanical implant, whatever – so long as it would benefit people, somehow. We had just 12 short hours to make this product (although it ended up more like 9) so we needed ideas that fit the time frame.
In a typically British manner, we settled on tackling weather-based issues – namely the chaos that semi-frozen rain often invokes throughout the nation. We looked towards mapping accident blackspots during snowy/icy weather (based on data from the government) and augmenting this with real-time information from Twitter feeds. The ultimate aim of this was to suggest areas which required gritting, or roads to avoid during the worst of the wintry weather.
And so, Gritly was born. Well…it took a bit more work than that, but you get what I mean. I won’t share a link yet, as it I’m not hosting it, but if I can in the future, I will. For now, here’s a screenshot:
While we chose the students union in Cardiff as the demo location, it turns out there weren’t many accidents in it’s vicinity, but you can see the yellow circle which indicates the location on the map.
Martin and Matt handled getting/organizing the historical data, plotting it on a map and eventually launching the app. Accidents are displayed according to their severity and can be clicked on to get more information, such as the weather/road conditions at the time. My responsibility within the project was the real-time data from Twitter including getting tweets with a certain hashtag, extracting the (mandatory) postcode from the tweet and translating it in to a lat/long co-ordinate so they could also be placed on the map. In all, the division of labour worked, and we had an hour to kill in the pub before the group demos.
This event produced some great apps, especially given the short time frame. They ranged from mobile apps to help people navigate Cardiff, to automatically translating tweets and Twitter streams, to web-based games. Each team (some even worked solo) introduced their app, and gave their motivation for making it, the technologies they used and what they planned to do to finish it off.
After the demos, judges appointed by BoxUK chose their favourite app, a runner up and the best individual participant. The prize giving was a School of Computer Science whitewash, with a group of first year undergraduates taking the runner up prize for their online noticeboard, a third year undergraduate winning the best individual and gritly being awarded the judges favourite app.
So that was my adventure in hackathons – it was a great way to spend my Sunday and I’m very glad I went. I’m also very grateful to my team-mates and to BoxUK for putting on the event in the first place. I will definitely be attending more events like this and I highly recommend you do the same.
Here are some other (much better – they even have pictures) write-ups of the event, by various people involved: