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Hackathon breaks records

By Giacomo Bologna, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 3, 2013

For 36 hours they invaded Palmer Commons.

Power strips and ethernet cords were forms of currency, wall sockets were a prized resource, staffers with walkie-talkie ear pieces controlled access in and out of the building and sleep was sacrificed as bloodshot eyes stared into computer screens.

More than 500 students came to the University from across the United States and even Canada to attend MHacks, which was the largest college hackathon in the nation — despite being the first major app-building event hosted by the University.

Students from a wide array of schools and fields of study took hold of rooms, hallways, nooks and any space in Palmer Commons within a few feet of a power outlet to develop programs and apps for smartphones and laptops.

“It was an epic experience,” said its director, David Fontenot. “Everything was over the top.”

The marathon event, called MHacks, started and ended with presentations in an auditorium of the Chemistry Building. Fontenot, who is an Engineering sophomore, described the final ceremony as “a little rough,” but he was more than pleased with the Hackathon as a whole.

MHacks eclipsed PennApps, a semi-annual hackathon held at the University of Pennsylvania, to become the most well-attended college hackathon in the nation. In January, PennApps had over 450 attendees.

The initial count for Mhacks: unclear. But Fontenot's original count was 521 people. About 20 to 30 people came after that, and a facilities manager at Palmer Commons counted about 600 people. In fact, there were so many attendees that 20 to 30 were temporarily moved to the UGLi, Fontenot noted.

Still, he said that it was more than just the sheer number of hackers that attended that made the event a success. The evidence: a huge number of toothbrushes and toothpaste provided in the bathrooms, 1,900 cans of donated Red Bull consumed and a “huge, epic" snowball fight that took place at 4 a.m. on Sunday.

In total, the budget of the event was about $57,000, which was paid for by main sponsors Facebook, Defense contractor Raytheon and the Central Student Government along with 22 other sponsors, including the University's Center for Entrepreneurship.

At the final ceremony, 10 teams out of a total of 123 demonstrated the apps they developed. Two brothers, Ali and Ehsan Razfar from the University of Illinois, won the grand prize (among others) including two trips to California for hacking competitions and more than $1,000.

The Razfars’ app, Speakeasy, lets users chat with one another in one language and have it actively translated into another language — plus it translates video chats.

It was Ali Razfars's sixth or seventh hackathon, he said, but his brother's first. He said the organizers of MHacks “knew what a hackathon is.”

“This is by far the most craziest (hackathon),” Ehsan said. “That David Fontenot guy is frickin’ awesome … even though (MHacks) had a lot of sponsors, he focused on the hackers.”

Ehsan said they slept six or seven hours — a fair amount for a hackathon according to Ali.

“(It was) more than other people, but not enough,” Ehsan said.

Engineering sophomore Andy Modell, who was in charge of maintaining the wireless Internet at the event, said the brothers' app “worked flawlessly.”

Despite the duo's success, Ali said that hackathons are only the start of great ideas — you need more than 36 hours to change the world.

“All these hacks, even ours, is not something that can be changing the world in any way," Ali said. "You really need to spend a lot of time with smart people to do that.”

The prospects of fame and fortune that can result from successful apps don't tempt Ali. The Illinois senior said dropping out of school to pursue developing full-time is unthinkable and unwise for students.

“Dropping out of school is the dumbest idea ever,” Ali said. “You can build things very quickly in (computer science) and then you get a taste of it and then you think you can do more, but really you need to learn the fundamentals.”

The second team that won a trip to California came from the University.

Engineering sophomores Joe Constantakis, Billy Irwin and Chris O’Neil — with some help from LSA sophomore Chris Simon — made the “chaos pad,” an app that acted like a digital whammy bar for electric guitars. Taped to a guitar, users can swipe their fingers across the smartphone to produce a variety of effects for the guitar, including tremolo and harmony.

While the app currently needs a computer to function, the team said they plan to phase it out — meaning several hundreds of dollars worth of equipment could be replaced by downloading an app and buying a special cord.

O’Neil said he enjoys the inherent “deadline” of the hackathon.

“You don’t have the excuse, ‘Oh, I can put it off,’ ” he said.

Irwin added that being in such close quarters with other programmers is also beneficial.

“It’s a really good way to learn collaboratively.”

—Austin Reed and Paula Friedrich contributed to this report.

Follow Giacomo Bologna on Twitter at @giacomo_bologna