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February 8, 2013 - 7:39pm

MHacks: Behind the scenes


The closing ceremony of MHacks, a hackathon at Palmer Commons attended by more than 500 students from across the country, featured the apps of only 10 teams despite the fact that 113 teams spent the weekend building and designing programs for smartphones and computers.

A team from the University of Waterloo worked on an app that allows users to dare each other and bet on the results of the dare. Users take a video of themselves doing what a friend dares them if they succeed in the dare, they are awarded with in-game currency — almost like Snapchat meets Draw Something.

The team of four came up with this idea on the drive down from Waterloo, but another team from Pennsylvania State University had their idea for much longer. Using the data and research collected by one member on how taste is quantified, the team created an app where users rate and identify features and flavors of a food product — typically artisan goods such as tea, coffee, cheese or beer. Their research on taste took about three years to compile.

The finished app, which will take much longer than a 36-hour hackathon to complete, is meant to help consumers identify what products they might like and help producers identify what their customers like. The app would eventually be able to make personalized recommendations.

Other teams developed games, music producing programs and fitness apps.

While trips to California, meetings with investors and thousands of dollars in cash were awarded to some of the top teams, Business senior Daniel Friedman, the MHacks director of fundraising, said each student walked away with useful experience.

Friedman said hackathons offer opportunities to be creative in coding, programming and designing that can’t be found in the classroom because there aren’t set guidelines for a project.

“(Hackers) need to find innovative ways to find answers … you may not exactly be able to find that answer you’re looking for,” Friedman said. “You may need to sort of pivot or try something new to sort of move your hack in a slightly different direction because there isn’t always a perfect solution.”

Friedman said he’s been to four hackathons in the last four months. Some last 48 hours and some last as few as 12, but he said 36 hours was a good compromise.

Still, sleep was hard to come by, and Friedman said the typical amount of sleep during MHacks ranged from a couple hours to five or six. While less sleep means more time for programming, Friedman said the quality of programming on little sleep could decrease so much that it sometimes makes sense to actually sleep more.

Despite the rise of social networks, Friedman said the personal relationships built between hackers at the University and students across the nation were “extremely important” to the high attendance of the event.

For example, when he won a hackathon hosted by Foursquare, he did so as a part of a team that included students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pittsburgh. Both of his former teammates attended MHacks and brought students from their respective schools, he said.

“Meeting people at other hackathons and building this network did help to bring a lot of the hackers to this University,” Friedman said.

While the hackathon was certainly designed to cater to students, Friedman noted that it was also meant to showcase southeastern Michigan: The bus ferrying students from Canada made a detour in Detroit en route to Ann Arbor.

There, the students visited the Madison Building, which houses start-up companies. Friedman added that several of the almost-25 sponsors of MHacks were local companies, such as Benzinga or Bizdom, or companies with ties to the area.

Mhacks set the record for the largest college hackathon, and Friedman added that it could have also set a local record.

“I think MHacks was the biggest tech event to ever hit Ann Arbor,” Friedman said.

Follow Giacomo Bologna on Twitter at @giacomo_bologna.