Exonians Launch Hackathon
“Hack” is one of those interesting words that has become ubiquitous in the information age while evolving in terms of its etymology. Early on, as most will recall, it was used to describe the often nefarious activities of those who circumvented computer firewalls to access secure information. More recently, and particularly on social media, we are bombarded with “life hacks — tricks for becoming more productive and efficient in various aspects of our public and private lives. Academy students Alec Sun ’17 and Vinjai Vale ’18 use the term in yet another way: to refer, as Vinjai explains, to “any technology project, usually created using one or more types of computer code, that becomes a functional prototype.”
This third definition was the one that Alec and Vinjai had in mind when they signed on to help organize “hackNEHS,” one of New England’s first “hackathons” for public and private high school students. Held on Saturday, October 8, at the new Microsoft Center in Burlington, Massachusetts, and co-organized with friends of Alec and Vinjai who attend Phillips Andover, the day-long event attracted some 240 students from all corners of New England, all of whom, thanks to corporate sponsorship, attended free of charge.
According to Vinjai, hackathons, which are events where “like-minded computer enthusiasts spend around a day building a hack from scratch,” are popular on the West Coast, but haven’t caught on in the same way on the East Coast. “Those that do exist,” he adds, “are usually for college students.”
So, in June 2015, when Andrew Wang from Andover reached out to see if Vinjai might be interested in helping to plan a regional hackathon for New England high schools (which is where the NEHS in the name derives), he jumped at the chance. Serious planning began in early 2016, with Vinjai, Andrew, and Andover student Kevin Sun handling organization of the event, Alec tackling sponsors, and Jocelyn Shen of Andover overseeing marketing.
While some hackathons have specific themes, Vinjai, Alec, and their Andover counterparts opted not to go that route with their first hackNEHS. “Rather,” says Vinjai, “we had a clear goal: whether you are experienced with hacking or not, we want you to come together to create something that you haven’t done before that you can feel proud of.”
Guided by this overarching objective, the hackNEHS coordinators organized their participants into 55 teams in the early morning hours of October 8. Following a brief opening session, hacking began in earnest and lasted into the evening. Professionals, college students and teachers — including Exeter’s own Sean Campbell, chair of the Computer Sciences Department — were on site at all times to serve as mentors.
The winning team, a group from Andover, created a musical study aid called “StudyMuse.” Explains Vinjai: “They wrote an app that can generate music that is optimal to listen to while studying, taking into consideration what is useful and what is distracting and allowing for real-time listener feedback. It was a very good idea and well-executed.” For their design, StudyMuse’s creators won $1,000 from the 1517 Fund, which provides pre-seed and seed funding for technology start-ups, as well as a tuition award and project fast-tracking from Catapult, a startup incubator for high school entrepreneurs.
By all accounts a resounding success in terms of attendance and idea-generation, the first hackNEHS event hit the mark in another key area — diversity. “We did a lot of marketing to Girls Who Code,” says Vinjai, “and so our gender split at the hackathon ended up being approximately 60 percent boys to 40 percent girls.” Given the gender disparity in the tech world, that percentage “is actually pretty good,” he says. Several of the mentors and judges were women, and a wide array of racial and ethnic groups was represented as well.
Ironically, the one bump in an otherwise smooth event, explains Vinjai, came from the Wi-Fi. “Soon after we arrived, we realized our venue’s Wi-Fi was down,” he laughs. “However, it turned out to be a testament to our coherence as a team, because we had to keep the rest of the event running while simultaneously fixing the very technology that we needed in order to proceed with the program!”
Why, one might wonder, would insanely busy Exeter students want to add planning a large-scale event like hackNEHS to their already crowded plates? For Vinjai, it was about “having fun and helping to empower the next generation of innovators. People our age are very used to consuming apps, so I think it was liberating for participants to sit down and create something for ourselves.”
Alec concurs: “Watching the hackers during the event struck a chord inside of me. I especially enjoyed the fact that even kids with no experience could learn some of the tools used to make web apps, and that even the new teams were able to create Java applications by the end of the day.”
Clearly, when it comes to hacking, these two are, well, no hacks.