Hackathons fertile ground for world's big innovations

Nov 25, 2013

A number of Buffalo college students have been coming away with some of the big prizes at recent computer code writing contest known as “hackathons.” As the popularity of hackathons continues to grow, observers are assigning a lot of value on the codefests, while others question whether the work coming out of them is relevant to the general public.

Mack Ward studies Computer Science at the University at Buffalo. He and his team placed first for their idea of the "Scroller" app, a program that allows people to scroll a page on the internet using only the human eye and standard computer technology.

University at Buffalo hackers Mack Ward (left) & Nathan Burgers (right)
Credit Ashley Hirtzel / WBFO News

The group came up with the idea in the car on their way to a weekend hackathon at Kent State.

Ward says the code writing boot camps are where the world’s next big inventions are born.

“We’re only able to use the limited hardware that we had, so all we were using is a web cam. But that made it a lot more universal for other users, so that all they needed was a web cam to use the app. So it was kind of a nice limitation that we found really beneficial to us,” he said.

Hackathons usually impose a tight timeframe on participants. Ward’s team had only 42 hours to bring the "Scroller" app to life.

Mack Ward tweaks the code for the "Scroller" app.
Credit Ashley Hirtzel / WBFO News

Nathan Burgers is also a Computer Science major. He says hackathons offer a neutral meeting ground for hackers to network and collaborate.

“They are really good ways for people to kind of showcase their skill, make something cool that they’ve been wanting to make for a really long time that they think is fun, and you find that you get really talented and really interested individuals at these competitions. You also get to see how well they work in a team,”

Burgers earned a prize for most technically difficult hack at a Michigan hackathon called MHacks a few months ago. It's not surprising he thinks it’s a good idea for everyone to develop some basic code skills.

“Pretty much any technical work done today is done on a computer or with a smart device. Our cars now even have operating systems inside them. So it’s important to have computer literacy, but it should not be compulsory,” said Burgers.

Mack Ward says the interest in hackathons supports the argument for more basic computer science to be taught in schools.

“Expose them to that mindset of technical thinking in the same way that we require students to take math, because you don’t necessarily need to know how to do the complex functions in math, but you need to know the type of thinking that’s required in math,” he explains.

December 7-8 will see a global hacking event Random Hacks of Kindness. The event targets community need and generates applications that are intended to solve human needs. For more detail of locations for the event visit the event's website.