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Coding the Future: the rise of the hackathon

By Ian Dillingham, Senior News Editor
Published January 20, 2014

Could e-mail be made more efficient, freeing users from the hours they spend at their computers? Why do people need to carry wallets when so much information can be stored on a phone? How could a trash can be improved to promote recycling initiatives?

For many students enduring the rigors of a traditional education system, learning entails just a one-way flow of information from teacher to pupil. With the exception of sporadic laboratory requirements or experimental courses, students are confined to the classroom experience — where theory often trumps practicality and real-world applications are added as footnotes to the end of lectures.

Those students with questions or ideas must take the initiative to investigate certain topics independently, outside the confines of syllabi and lecture halls. However, true intellectual exploration can be challenging when those same students must manage the typical college hurdles — exams, essays, extracurriculars and a range of personal and social commitments.

How much time can students possibly dedicate to independent learning while still enrolled at the University?

For one group on campus, the answer is 36 hours.

This past weekend, about 1,200 students from over 60 universities around the world gathered in Detroit for the third installment of MHacks — a non-stop, three-day computer programming competition and expo hosted by MPowered Entrepreneurship and Michigan Hackers.

On the surface, the idea is simple. Teams of four compete to design, build and demonstrate the best piece of technology in just 36 hours. The event begins Friday night and ends Sunday morning, culminating in an expo in which teams showcase their creations to judges who award cash and other prizes.

The infusion of Detroit entrepreneurialism was evident in every corner of the event, as participants were treated to panoramic views of the city from seven or eight stories above the streets. For those visiting the city for the first time, the event provided a unique immersion into the city’s culture, though their attention rarely drifted from their projects once the clock began.

Though most teams choose to focus on mobile applications, websites and social media devices, the parameters are purposefully open-ended — anything goes. The winner of last year’s event designed a trash can that sorted recyclable materials based on the noise they made when tossed into the device.

Since its conception less than two years ago, MHacks has exploded into the largest college hackathon in the country — the word “hack,” in this case, refers to participants' need to “hack together” ideas in a short period of time rather than the common association with “computer hackers.”

While the rules are simple, the event has come to represent much more than a group of computer nerds spending their holiday weekend staring at lines of code. Instead, the event represents a challenge to the very nature of education and, in turn, challenges students to create, innovate and develop technologies for the real world.

Redefining Education

Contrary to public perceptions, MHacks is not an exclusive meeting of the best programmers on campus.

Granted, the best computer programmers attend every year in waves, but the coordinators said the event is intended to introduce students to the world of computer programming — no experience necessary.

This has been a common theme to MHacks ever since four students at the University decided to hold the first event in the Palmer Commons in 2012. LSA and Engineering junior Thomas Erdmann is the last member of the original group still at the University. Though he stepped down from his lead role for this year’s event, he remains active in the hackathon culture.

“We marketed MHacks from the beginning as open to all skill levels,” Erdmann said. “I know people who had never written a line of code in their life before MHacks last time around and now they’re building websites.”

The pressure to build on a 36-hour deadline combined with the collective knowledge of teammates and other participants makes the environment conducive to quick learning, Erdmann said.

“It really pushes you to figure out a way to get your idea built,” Erdmann said. “If you don’t have the technical know-how, you’ll figure out how to get it.”

Engineering junior Dylan Hurd, one of the event’s three directors this year, said MHacks is designed to provide education at all levels, so that participants can learn new skills regardless of prior computer science knowledge. This is accomplished, in part, through presentations and demonstrations from sponsors, including Apple and GitHub, which expose participants to new tools they can use to design their projects.


MHacks Directors
MHacks directors LSA Junior Adrian Lupusoru, Engineering junior Dylan Hurd, and Engineering Jonathan Poczatek (Ruby Wallau/Daily).

“We try to make MHacks a learning experience for everyone involved,” Hurd said. “Someone who’s a computer science major may have straight As in their program, but may have never built an iOS app before, so they can come in and learn something entirely new to them and come out with a working product.”

The cornerstone of the MHacks model is its focus on project-based group learning. Unlike traditional classroom-based education, participants must possess the ability to solve problems in real time, a skill many employers in the field value.

“It gives you a lot of experience that the closed environment of a classroom doesn’t. Obviously the classroom has its benefits, but if you can’t apply what you know in the real world, it’s just not as useful,” Hurd said.

While both Hurd and Erdmann expressed doubts that MHacks could be used to reform education, the hackathon movement is beginning to assert its influence over colleges nationwide. Michigan Hackers hosts more frequent hacking events — usually six hours or less — on campus, allowing students to experience the hackathon environment more frequently than twice a year.

Many participants at the event expressed their desire to see better implementation of collaborative, project-based opportunities in education.

Eric Mintzer, a business student from the University of Maryland attending his first hackathon, said the education provided at the event was different from anything he had experienced in school.

“I look at (hackathons) as an alternative to education but I think it’s something that colleges should support,” Mintzer said. “It’s not the best way for everyone (to learn) but the people here are very self-driven and self-educated, meaning they want to teach themselves and that’s the way many people here learn best.”

Mintzer and his team used their time at the event to prototype a virtual reality device that would allow the user to observe financial graphs and layouts in a virtual universe. The project combined several pre-existing technologies, as well as one of the many APIs — application programming interfaces — provided to participants, allowing them to develop products that integrate with existing systems or infrastructure.


Eric Mintzer
University of Maryland sophomore Eric Mintzer works on his project using Oculus Rift software (Adam Glanzman/Daily)."

While Mintzer continues to attend classes (at the urging of his parents), he considers himself a programmer at heart and is using his experience to launch a startup company that develops interactive marketing displays. One common theme he noted among many participants was that the current education system wasn’t providing something they needed.

“The school system works really well for some people, just not for me,” he said.

The Hacker Culture

The first MHacks came about after the founding members, along with about 30 other students from the University, traveled to the University of Pennsylvania for another prominent hackathon, PennApps. With most members having never attended such an event, students from the University took home a quarter of the prizes, according to Erdmann.

“We were all wearing these matching orange shirts and stood out like a sore thumb,” Erdmann said. “Michigan hadn’t traveled as much to hackathons in the past and … we just took the whole hacking community by storm.”

Since then, MHacks has grown into the largest college hackathon in the nation, with students traveling from as far away as Europe to participate.

As hackathons around the nation gain popularity, they have begun to develop a culture that extends beyond the bounds of the weekend events. Directors of the MHacks event have received many emails from college students across the nation who want to host similar events at their own institutions, Hurd said.

One of the most interesting trends for Hurd is whether students look for smaller, local events or if they remain willing to travel to the five largest events each year: MHacks, PennApps, HackMIT, Y-Hack at Yale University and hackTECH at the California Institute of Technology.

Regardless of the location, one major obstacle for this emerging culture is the need to enhance public perceptions, which often view hackers as people who use computer skills to break into secure databases for their own gains.

“A lot of the focus of the current hackathon culture is dissuading the public from this stereotype that is associated with hacker culture,” Hurd said.

That stereotype, Hurd said, is one of an 18- to 21-year-old male, usually a computer engineer, who spends countless hours staring at their computer.

“We’re trying to show that anyone can be a hacker,” Hurd said. “It’s about having the skills to learn quickly, problem solve and put your creativity to use.”

The Gender Gap

For all the successes of the culture, however, one obvious downfall of MHacks — and hacker culture — is the current gender gap. Business and LSA junior Lucy Zhao, one of the MHacks coordinators, said she’d estimate only 10 to 20 percent of the participants of most hackathons are female.

“Clearly there is a big gender gap,” Zhao said. “I think there’s a lot of reasons — girls are sometimes not encouraged in technical fields … but I also think it’s part of the hackathon environment.”

Zhao noted that, since participants essentially live together for three days, the environment can sometimes take on a “bro-ish” feel. Additionally, some female participants expressed a hesitation to join male teams once at the hackathon, which discouraged them from registering, Zhao said.

Given the disparity, Zhao said the organizers made a special effort to expand the participant demographics this year by reaching out to female groups at the University and around the nation. She also said some sponsors took special measures — such as requesting to fund female buses to the event — in order to promote involvement in the industry.

“There’s tons of talented female hackers, so I don’t think necessarily that they don’t feel they can contribute,” Zhao said. “Sometimes it’s just that no one reached out to them or they just didn’t feel welcomed.”

Creation Process

This weekend’s event seemed to revolve around a theme of creation, a theme which has echoed that of past hackathons. Engineering senior David Brown, who was attending his first hackathon, said the collaborative and creative culture present at the event opened up new possibilities in his program design.

“It’s trying to redefine the (public) concept of hacking as a creation process,” Brown said.

Brown and his team, drawing upon experience from research conducted at the University, used the event as an opportunity to develop technology that could help individuals disabled by spinal cord injuries or neuronal diseases, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Individuals with these diseases have various levels of motor impairment that often make communication difficult. Though electronic equipment can help alleviate the effect of the conditions, it is often bulky and requires a significant power source. In an effort to make such devices more portable, Brown’s team was building a brain-computer interface using special glasses, known as Google Glass, that would register the patient’s eye activity and respond accordingly.


Xiaoya Ma
School of Kineosiology graduate student Xiaoya Ma works to combine brain-computer interface with Google Glass technology at Mhacks (Ruby Wallau/Daily).

“They can use it to communicate through a computer when they otherwise would have no other means of communicating,” Brown said.

Though he could work on his project for the same amount of time in small increments, Brown said the uninterrupted 36-hour work period was the best feature of the hackathon.

“To have everything so self-contained so you don’t have to worry about anything at all,” he said. “To be able to delve for that long into a project and focus on one thing I think really makes things possible that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.”

Detroit: it’s not Silicon Valley … yet.

This year’s event reached a new level of significance — and publicity — after coordinators made the decision to relocate the event to downtown Detroit.

Both of the prior two events were held in Ann Arbor, the first in Palmer Commons and the second in the Big House. Though the move to Detroit was seen as necessary to providing the space and resources to accommodate 1,200 participants, the event’s directors acknowledged their desire to use the event as a vehicle for introducing participants to the city — with the hopes of affecting positive long-term change.

The Quicken Loans operations center, known as the Qube, served as the venue for the event after a series of discussions between event coordinators and Dan Gilbert, chairman and founder of Quicken Loans and Rock Ventures. Gilbert’s companies actively promote Detroit revitalization efforts, including events such as the hackathon, through a subsidiary organization called Opportunity Detroit.

“Bringing MHacks to Detroit was a no-brainer for our organization,” John Marcicky, community relations manager for Rock Ventures, said in a statement. “There is no better event than this to show 1,200 of some of the top tech students in the world that the city is in the middle of a tech revolution that is attracting some of the world’s brightest minds.”

Given the success of holding the event at Michigan Stadium, some may have questioned the organizers’ decision to relocate the event away from Ann Arbor. However, Hurd said the rule of thumb for MHacks is to never try to hold the same event twice.

“We try to create a unique experience every time,” Hurd said. “We like to bring something new to every event — something students have never seen before.”

In the discussion of possible locations, the organizers saw an opportunity for the event to strike a positive impact in Detroit, which many believe is undergoing a technological resurgence with the growth of the city’s startups in recent years.

“Hackers have come here and they like what they’ve seen — they are excited about the city,” Hurd said. “I am confident that we can contribute to the revitalization of the city in some way.”

While benefiting the city, the location change also moved participants closer to many of the sponsors who view the event as a recruiting tool. Technology companies leverage the events as a 36-hour interview process, allowing them to observe how potential employees work in real-world environments.

Sponsors come to recruit, promote products and help hackers through seminars and presentations. As a new addition to this year’s event, participants were also connected with engineers from companies around the world through social media, allowing the students to ask questions and receive instruction in real time as they faced complications with their projects.

“It was amazing to see the response of sponsors and how excited they were to connect with students,” Hurd said.

Benjamin San Souci, a third-year student from McGill University in Montreal attending his third hackathon, said he learned early on that hackathon projects are often judged on their looks and concepts more than their content, and that this trend even translates into the industry.

“It doesn’t matter if it works as long as it looks good,” San Souci said. “That’s the point — you’re presenting it to people — whether it works or not, many people will never know.”

San Souci and his team made the 13-hour drive from Montreal to develop an app that allows users to plan and host custom scavenger hunts using mobile phones. The team planned to design the app so that participants in the scavenger hunt were required to complete some task — for example, answer a question or take a picture — at each location in order to progress through the contest.

The Canadians planned to finish and launch the app before the end of the event, allowing the hackathon to serve as the first trial of their product and giving the team the chance to get feedback about the design. This type of encouragement and collaboration is critical to the nature of hackathons, San Souci said.

“You meet a lot of really cool people — a lot of really talented people — I met a kid who was 16 (years old) and has been to eight hackathons,” he said. “It’s a really friendly community, even though you don’t know many people, everyone feels really close.”

The winners of the grand prize this year developed an iPad app — Workflow — that allows users to build complex programs using a few simple keystrokes. Like many projects at MHacks, it was innovative and supplied a technology lacking in the market today.

But, as many who have attended the event might tell you, the competition comes second at MHacks.

“There is a competitive aspect to it, but if you were to walk through, you would find that it doesn’t feel like a competition,” Erdmann said. “More than anything, everyone there wants to learn and everyone there wants to build something great, but they also want to use the hackathon as a platform for meeting other people and helping other people — and spreading what they’re already passionate about.”