Y-Hack brings coders to West Campus

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A Marauder’s Map app for Yale? An app that lays beats down over National Public Radio so you get the morning news as a rap? A “chicken” app, complete with automated clucks?

Maybe. But Alex Wissmann, a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, decided he and his team had grander plans for Y-Hack, the 24-hour hackathon that began on Friday evening. With about 18 hours remaining, the four finally decided to work on “Gimme-Shelter,” an app for nonprofit organizations to send out text message alerts to nearby homeless people.

Y-Hack, the brainchild of co-founders Charles Jin ’16, Mike Wu ’16, and Frank Wu ’16, drew over 1,000 undergraduate coders from roughly 75 schools across the country and Canada to West Campus on Friday and Saturday for Yale’s largest ever hackathon. Teams had 24 hours to code (or “hack”) an idea for over $20,000 in prizes from Google, Amazon and other sponsors, many of whom sent representatives to give talks, provide advice and support and hand out free gear. On Saturday evening, after dinner in Commons, each group presented its project, science-fair style, for the judges’ deliberation.

The winning hack, “Rainman,” which pulls up relevant Wikipedia articles on a sidebar next to news stories, was the project of Yale’s Geoffrey Litt ’14 and Seth Thompson ’14. The second place award also went to two Yale students, Sean Haufler ’14 and Matthew Rajcok ’16, who designed an app called “Lux” that changes the hue and brightness of indoor lights depending on the time of day.

Kevin Tan ’16, one of the organizers, said the Y-Hack team began planning the event over the summer. Tan said he thought they might be lucky to have a few hundred competitors from Yale and nearby colleges — last year’s hackathon attracted only about 35 students, said Y-Hack organizer Jason Brooks ’16. But momentum built quickly among the collegiate hacking community through social media and word of mouth.

“It’s been amazing on our part, witnessing and trying to handle the growth,” Tan said. “[Planning Y-Hack was] analogous to hacking. We faced challenges every step of the way. We went in not knowing how to do anything, and we looked it up all on our own.”

When more hackers registered than could fit in any of the buildings on Yale’s main campus, the organizers decided to host the event at administrative buildings on West Campus. The large and open “office jungle,” as Tan called it, allowed each group a room or desk station for hacking.

Brynn Claypoole, a junior at the University of Pennsylvania and director of Penn’s hackathon PennApps, said that for most participants hackathons are less about winning than they are about learning and collaboration, even between students from opposing teams. She said many students, including herself, attended Y-Hack not to compete, but to volunteer help and answer competitors’ questions about coding.

But most people were at Y-Hack to hack. Hampshire College senior Alec Goebel echoed 15 other students interviewed saying he was impressed that the event was so large and well organized. Like any other hackathon, however, he said it was a bit stressful.

“It gets really serious,” Goebel said. “The time crunch is such a killer — a typo can get you stuck for 24 hours. But you get attached to your app, and it gets emotional. Which is part of the fun.”

No student left Y-Hack empty-handed. Free pizza, cookies and energy drinks were available throughout the night for hungry coders to take back to their workspaces, although students complained that demand for food occasionally exceeded availability. Event organizers and sponsors gave out T-shirts, pens and backpacks on the first floor, and raffles were held for larger prizes, like tablets and cell phones. The organizers also offered to reimburse each group up to $100 for travel expenses.

Mike Swift, the commissioner of the collegiate hackathon league Major League Hacking, said the science fair-style layout of corporate presentations at Y-Hack was unique and would “set a model” for future hackathons.

“A lot of people sit around all day wishing they could make things,” Swift said. “These kids can imagine something and actually make it happen.”

Unlike the Computer Science Department at Stanford where the focus is practical applications and entrepreneurship, Tan said, Yale is known for its academic focus. Y-Hack, he said, fills a niche for Yale students who are interested in coding outside the rigor of a classroom setting.

Adam Zucker ’17, who came into Commons looking tired and slightly pink-eyed, said he had slept only two hours during Y-Hack trying to finish his app, but that he had enjoyed himself nonetheless.

“You show up to West Campus, hop in a cubicle, and just crank away at your code,” he said. “It [was] fantastic.”

The third place winner was “cHat,” a program designed by a team from Carnegie Mellon that uses simple text to recreate video images when there is insufficient bandwidth for normal images.

Correction: Nov. 11

A previous version of this article omitted to name Matthew Rajcok ’16 as one of the students who worked on the second place winning app, “Lux.”

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