I participated in my first (!) hackathon this weekend, a 48-hour student-run event at UPenn known as PennApps Hackathon. A friend and I wrote UnStock.Me, a stock trading game that -- at one point at least -- was intended to be educational. "Codecademy for the stock market" was the original idea, which we intentionally chose because it wouldn't take very long. We used the extra time to sleep and attend rush events for our fraternity (Phi Kappa Psi).
Unsurprisingly for an idea designed to be as simple as what we built, we didn't win anything, but we still had a great time. The event was well-organized (thanks, Pulak & co.) and high-energy, with a seemingly endless supply of food and some amazing sponsors. Watching the demos at the end was pretty cool too. Congratulations to ScratchTable, which swept both the audience and judging awards to become the second hardware hack in a row to win PennApps (and the third winning hack in a row to be built by non-CS students).
While everyone who had something to demo should be commended for their hard work, effort, and talent, many app ideas themselves were unsurprisingly less than inspired. There were several apps focused on helping people find interesting things to do in their area. There were a few schedule-based apps (although one was a logarithmic calendar, which was cool). This being a college hackathon, there were at least two apps for mixing alcoholic drinks. Courtesy of SOPA, there were several apps targeted toward activism, which was nice. If you've had anything to do with startups over the past two years -- and I've had a lot to do with them -- you'll know that everyone and their mother seems to have written a location-based deals/friend-finder/fun-finder app. I personally find most mashup apps to be somewhat unambitious, but since they're easier than building a new service from scratch (and because they appease the sponsors) there were a number of mashups (admittedly, one or two were pretty cool on their own). There were no browser extensions or desktop applications -- just websites, some mobile apps, and one motion sensor.
However, I was pleasantly surprised at the number of ideas that were unique or at least inventive. Several had quite nice designs, which is awesome for a weekend project. The overall quality of the PennApps hacks was very good. I thought it was interesting that most people hadn't specifically chosen ideas that demonstrated particularly complex technology or advanced skill sets, but there were definitely a few hacks that stood out here (my favorite being DesignFlow, an HTML5 document editor based on the canvas element). The ones that did show off more complicated skill were well-appreciated by the audience, although I'm not sure that had a strong effect on the awards. Either way, I'll probably choose something that at least seems more difficult for my next hackathon, because what I built this time was well within my comfort zone (although outside of my partner's). I did notice that a lot of people with beginner-to-intermediate skill sets were participating, which is fantastic. However, I wish the organizers had replaced the introductory demo of the sponsors' APIs with a session to teach those people how to debug effectively or how to use git.
The theme for this event was Simplicity, which I thought had a lot of potential. Some teams like GrassRoutes did a good job with this. Big problems that many people habitually find confusing or difficult are typically hard to identify, so it's not surprising that there were no Hipmunks or Kayaks in the bunch.
Every non-engineer who I told I was doing PennApps responded "wait, are you hacking into computers?" or something to that effect. (We weren't. Or at least, I wasn't.) Perhaps it's time for a name change.
The excitement in the air throughout PennApps made it a lot of fun. I knew a lot of people there, but being a Wharton student (and not an engineer) I wish I had had a chance to meet more people! I also wish I had a good way to contact people because if I want a partner next time I start a project the PennApps participants would be a great place to look. Employers should pay attention too.
Anyway, thanks again to the organizers for putting together such a great event, and great job to all the participants as well.
UPDATE: Here is the list of projects.