Hackathon Culture

January 28, 2016

Hackathons are churning up less new but more same

I think students that all go to a hackathon share a very similar background, or at least something is similar enough in their interests that brings all of these kids to a 36-hour high tech sleepover. Hackathons are about creating new things that challenges the way we solve the problems that we haven’t even thought were problems. Yet increasingly I’ve seen at various hackathons is that there is always something similar, another Uber, another Facebook, another Airbnb anything application. Where has the originality gone? I think the root of this homogenous pot of hackathon ideas is that all the students that go to these hackathons share a similar focus on tech; narrowing their vision of the world. In order to keep our creative minds fresh, you have to feed it with the problems that you haven’t yet experienced but others have. I believe that CS students should be reading the news and a more diverse set of topics than anyone else as they are the ones who have the tools that can be applied to anything. The exposure of the world is crucial for young developers to know what solutions he can tackle and solve. At this year’s Delta Hacks II hosted at McMaster University in Hamilton Ontario, I gave a workshop to students new to hackathons and students who do not know what they should build. Since Delta Hacks is a hack for change (heh, get it change?) I encouraged all these young students to always look into their community and see if there is something that is an issue that needs solving or is there an common annoyance that can be relieved. Some of the topics I gave them which were the headlines of the news currently (January of 2016) where these:

  • Canada accepts 300 Syrian Refugees, more are heading to Toronto
  • California drought crisis worsens
  • Syrian refugees still traversing the waters to reach Greece
  • Sky rocketing food prices for 2016

These headlines provided a good base of problems that could be solved using technology. As long as there is a what, the developers can find a way. Looking at the topics I helped brainstormed the ideas with the students regarding what is the real problem we are trying to solve, what feasible technology that we currently possess, and what are some of the student’s experience with technology; together we came up with the following solutions to the problems listed above:

  • An mobile application that allows Syrians be able to find services such as hospitals, libraries and so forth
  • Water simulations to diverge or recipe water resources on demand
  • A beacon that floats on the water which will transmit a GSM signal that the refugees on the boats in the night can see
  • A automated self-contained green house that is monitored and controlled by an Arduino / Raspberry PI combo To be honest after seeing so many unoriginal copy-cat submissions at hackathons it makes me unhappy to see a hackathon that yields nothing but students placing facades over top demo applications and not attempting to solve new problems, but trying to rebuild a wheel with a new color.