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Growing number of hackathons at RIT

By Scott Bureau

It was Tuesday night and Stefan Aleksic was still recovering from the weekend.

After 36 hours of coding with hundreds of other students at Y-Hacks, Yale University’s Halloween-themed hackathon, Aleksic was experiencing the effects of a hackathon “hangover.”

“Still, I wasn’t going to let a little sleep deprivation prevent me from attending the next hackathon,” said the first-year RIT computer science major from Chicago.

Aleksic joined 50 other students and community members to participate in the annual RIT Election Night Hackathon on Nov. 4, an event devoted to civic hacking and crunching real-time election data. The Election Night Hackathon is just one of dozens of similar events held at RIT and at other universities across the country every year.

In fact, RIT students have attended hackathons every weekend this fall.

Much like a marathon in which runners cover a lot of ground over a limited period of time, hackathons allow computer programmers and others involved in software development, including graphic designers, project managers and interface designers, to cover a lot of ground on a software project with a certain theme. The “hack” in hackathon refers to the problem solving and exploratory programming that occurs during these 12-, 24- or 36-hour coding competitions, not someone who breaks into a computer system.

But hackathons are more than coding. They have become a popular way for students to impress future employers, give back to the community and socialize.

That wasn’t always the case. Adjunct professor Remy DeCausemaker remembers setting up his first hackathon at RIT in 2009. The pizza was ordered, cans of energy drinks were within arm’s reach and he was ready to stay awake for 24 hours of open-source government data aggregation.

“I think three computing students showed up, and they only stayed for five or six hours,” said DeCausemaker, who is also a free and open-source software research coordinator in RIT’s Center for Media, Arts, Games, Interaction and Creativity (MAGIC).

But DeCausemaker said the event was still fun and they learned about open-source software development, which is software that anyone can modify and improve.

Since 2009, there have been more than 40 hackathons at RIT, including women-only hackathons, hackathons to build whole video games in a day, hackathons to solve problems for NASA and hackathons to win prizes from Apple and Microsoft.

A main reason for the growth in hackathons is that they are becoming a step in the interview process for employers.

“Because of the things I’ve made and the people I’ve met, I was able to get interviews at Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter as a freshman,” said Aleksic. “But I have decided not to pursue any internships this summer so I can focus full-time on my Cosmos Browser—an app that I created at a hackathon.”

Along with the excitement of a competition, hackathons allow participants to learn new skills, give back to the community and make new friends.

“You really shouldn’t go to hackathons just for the prizes,” said Mike Nolan, a fourth-year new media interactive development student from Fairport, N.Y. “It’s such a collaborative and fun culture that everyone wins—that’s probably why hackathons are my favorite thing about college.”

RIT ‘hackers’ get creative

Cosmos Browser by Stefan Aleksic, first-year computer science student: An Android app that allows you to browse the Web without having any data or Wi-Fi connection. It uses text messaging to get the html, which the app renders to display the website. It was created at MHacks, the University of Michigan hackathon, Sept. 5-7.

Agentada by Carl Domingo, Colden Cullen, Daniel Jost and Brandon Littell, game design and development students, and Colin Budd (Cornell University): This app creates custom agendas based on the collective interests of a group. Enter your destination, dates of travel and import your tastes from Facebook, and Agentada will generate a schedule of hotels, events and restaurants that pleases your entire group of friends. It was created at BigRed//Hacks, Cornell University’s hackathon held in September.

Political Party Crasher by Mike Nolan, fourth-year new media interactive development student: A Web app that uses Sunlight Foundation data sets to visualize campaign contributions and campaign fundraising parties in order to analyze the impact of third parties on elected officials. It was created at RIT’s Software Freedom Day, a hackathon held in September.