Bucket List Post: Attend a Major League Hackathon

“Every once in a while, a new technology, an old problem, and a big idea turn into an innovation” – Dean Kamen

What is a hackathon?

“A hackathon is a design sprint-like event in which computer programmers and others involved in software development, including graphic designers, interface designers, project managers, and others, often including subject-matter-experts, collaborate intensively on software projects.” – Wikipedia

My definition of a hackathon is a 24-48 hour brain fest, where computer geeks and IT nerds, like myself, work to solve or develop new inventions that can be useful for mankind.  Most hackathons allow participants to build anything that they want based on the tools that are available to them by sponsors.  Sponsors are tech companies who are looking to have their products used in the most creative way as possible.  Some hackathons come with pre-determined prompts, such as business problems or problems in the community that are looking to be solved using technology.

Not all hackathons are created equally.

Most hackathons often have different routes that participants can choose from, such as a business route, which involves building business models and deliver a business solution.  A developing route, where participants can build actual prototypes and conduct demos to the judges.  They all have different levels of difficulties, thus the prizes are also different, the harder the track, the more prizes you’ll get.  Most hacks are beginner friendly, such as the Major League Hack that I attended this past month. However, the goals of all hackathons are, all the same, to learn as much as possible and to have fun.

Rookie team with a big dream.

I’ve attended a total of 3 hackathons, one at my university, one in the city of Charlotte (Charlotte Hack) and Hack NC (MLH). The scale of these hacks gets better and better each time I attended.  For the first 2 hackathons, they were hosted and sponsored by large companies.  So in terms of the prompts, they had set topics or business problems that were in need of some fresh sets of eyes.  Hack NC was hosted at UNC-Chapel Hill and it was a Major League Hackathon, which was more beginners friendly, and there weren’t any prompts.

Without a set prompt, my team and I decided on the goals that we wanted to work towards, which was social goods.  The prompt that we came up with was a way to combat human trafficking by targeting online ads that are potentially been posted by traffickers.  Our team wanted to utilize machine learning to recognize keywords and emojis that were paired together as codes between traffickers and their customers.  After spending several hours researching on the topic in order to generate data sets, we were lucky to come across a few tips that helped us started in building our own data sets based on the meaning of different words or emojis.

I was awake for almost 24 hours, from Saturday 7 am to Sunday at 9 pm, I did manage to take a 1-hour nap from 3 am – 4 am.  Although my brain was fried, and many of brain cells will never recover, I wanted to keep working because I wanted to see this project happens.  Our hard work and passion paid off because of the judges and the guests, they were impressed with our idea.  But most importantly, we got them to think about a topic that they never really thought about.  Prior to the closing ceremony, our team pretty much agreed that we didn’t care whether or not we won, the point was we learned and we will continue on with our project.

We ended up winning the prizes for Social Good for the week of HackNC, and we also placed top 25 in the Wolfram list.  It was the first time any of us have ever won at a hackathon, and to win based on the idea that we had and the impact that we will have was rewarding.

If you are interested in reading about our project, here is the link to our Hackathon DevPost. 

Thank you for reading!  ^.^

Linh

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