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PennApps: 900 Students, 6 Buildings, 3 Floors, 1 Great Hackathon

PennApps students travel from building to building

With its roots in a 2009 event, PennApps is one of the best established Major League Hackathons.  Combining with the hardware-focused “PennHacks” brought a wide spectrum of hardware and software innovations.  The weather around Philadelphia at this time (February 14-16) was vicious, cutting the number of participants drastically, but around 900 students from various schools still managed to join in and throw down on some great ideas.

Mashery's Amit Jotwani on stage

Figure 1- Mashery’s Amit Jotwani presents at the opening ceremony

While most of the hacking and eating occurred in a cluster of 5 buildings, the introductory kickoff, wrap-up expo, and awards ceremony were hosted in the Penn Museum.  The image above shows the flood of participants traveling from the kickoff to the first meal of the weekend.  Hunger sated and minds brimming with ideas, the students filled the halls and many rooms to get to work.

Hallways lined with hackers

Figure 2- Hallways lined with hackers

This provided a great way for participants to have a modicum of privacy for productivity, but without any map or identifying location markers it was difficult to find individual teams among the maze of interconnected halls and work rooms.  While many sponsors wouldn’t need to find their teams, we found this to be problematic when handing out Intel blankets; we wanted those using the XDK to have the first opportunity to snag this desirable goodie. 

Shirts and blankets both went fast, and a good number of teams made use of our presence throughout the competition.  There was a period of a few hours Saturday morning where we left to get a bit of sleep, but otherwise we stayed strong alongside these hardworking hackers, offering our help to get their apps working right.

Apps Using the XDK

Intel Student Mentor Chris Moody prepares more blankets behind the signs

Figure 3- Intel Student Mentor Chris Moody prepares more blankets for distribution behind the signs

The XDK was used by at least 12 teams (30 students), with more that reportedly would have used it if they had known earlier in the competition.  With a strong hardware presence, there were also a significant number of teams that needed low-level device access; to keep using the XDK, these teams had to either write a custom plugin or create a separate native app that communicates with their main component. 

Alfred Shaker, pictured above on the right (sporting a stylish Intel blanket), developed a full app “Text Legends” on his own wherein the user can get player statistics from his favorite online game displayed on the mobile app and/or sent to their phone via text.

We worked with the “Blink Books” team (half of which, Natalie and Nick, are pictured in the lower left above) to work around server access issues.  Unfortunately the time ran just shy of finishing their app, but the team epitomized a hackathon: pounding away at an error until another way reveals itself, learning comes quickly.

The winner of the XDK prize was “EOS: add hours to your life” which gamifies the user’s life by taking information on activities and depicting the amount of work time and free time that are available.  By keeping a better eye on these, the users can find a proper balance while getting things done.  The decision was difficult, but considering innovation, usability/appeal, polish, and utilization of the XDK, this app won out.

There was at least one hardware hack that also used the XDK: “Strawdrate” detects the amount of water you drink through a straw and calculates hydration level based on statistics about the user, activity and environment. 

There were many other great XDK apps, including a stock market predictor that analyzes media posts about the companies for semantic content, a group tracker to locate your friends in a theme park, and a mood-based jukebox to play music based on your emotional status. 

Intel and Future Major League Hackathons

We met lots of cool people and saw more interesting apps than I could list here.  The blankets were a hit, and will likely be included in plans for future events.  For the hardware hackers, we will be bringing some Intel Galileo boards to provide some small-scale heavy lifting.  All in all, we want to keep helping students bring their amazing ideas to life.

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