Through the good work of two Georgetown undergraduates, Casandra Schwartz and Taylor Wan, last weekend the Healey Family Center was a beehive of activity. Laptops, wireless devices, and virtual reality tools were spread across scores of tables. The atmosphere was loud, boisterous, and electric with energy. It was “HoyaHacks,” a hackathon organized by students, faculty, and University Information Services (UIS), and sponsored by a large group of corporate and nonprofit entities.
There were some formal lectures on web-scraping, Java, HTML, CSS, data visualization software, and data analytics. There were games and social events.
There were over 300 participants, mostly students, mostly from non-Georgetown institutions. Some were high school students; some were graduate students. Over 40 institutions were represented.
The highlight of the hackathon was a competition for building software applications that solved interesting problems. Teams had about 36 hours to do their work. Some of the teams formed on the spot; members had not known each other prior to the event. Others came from the same school to the Hackathon together.
The problems they tackled were diverse. One application used a sensor placed on the user’s head, with a Bluetooth connection to a laptop application. On the screen appeared the letters of the alphabet and a set of special characters. The software took a few minutes to identify which letters were the focus of the user and then began to display them on the screen. In essence, with complete immobility except for one’s eye movements, the user could spell out words on the screen. The application’s benefits for the physically impaired people were obvious.
Another application was designed for users who were in a new city, at night. With current functionality, Google maps can route their walk back to their hotel identifying the quickest route. But sometimes, in a strange city, returning to one’s hotel by foot generates concerns about personal safety. One group developed an app that used data on open hours of businesses and altered the Google route to maximize the likelihood of walking through neighborhoods with open stores and other businesses.
Yet another app showed real time spatial clustering of financial events, like bankruptcies, plotting the incidents as a layer over an interactive map. Multiple layers would be used to display demographic differences in the statistics displayed (e.g., female vs. males).
Another app showed real-time tracking of favorable or unfavorable sentiments of political candidates, based on Twitter feeds and natural-language processing of the text in tweets. Using the geographical location in some tweets, they can plot the variation in sentiment across the country.
There were many other interesting projects.
Judges from faculty and private sector sponsors reviewed each of the projects and voted on the best. Demonstrations of the applications followed. It was a real competition.
I was excited to see the creativity of many of the students. They presented clever uses of Internet-based data resources to solve real problems. I hope Georgetown has many hackathons over the coming years.
This HoyaHacks was designed to allow the participants to both invent the problem and find its solution. Other hackathons are more thematically organized, providing to the students a well-defined problem to explore and solve. Reflecting on the success of last weekend, I can see real payoff for faculty to pose candidate research questions as part of a thematic hackathon and benefit from working with students on their solutions. Maybe we should try such an idea in the future.