Jared Hirata/Courtesy Photo

Hackathons have risen in popularity in the past several years — from Cal Poly to big corporations, hackathons are used as a way to gain new ideas while honing participants’ skills.

Many companies put on problem-solving hackathons that allow for teams to create solutions to issues that arise within a company’s product. Eventbrite has 52 hackathon events between April and July in California alone. These events include everything from the “Apple TV App Challenge,” which challenges teams to create an Apple TV app, to “Playcrafting and Microsoft Tool Jam,” which challenges teams to create useful software tools for game developers.

Cal Poly has hosted hackathons this year, and independent ones have taken place in San Luis Obispo as well. Transunion, a credit information and information management company that has nexus within SLO, is hosting a hackathon on Friday. The event will challenge competitors to design an educational desktop or mobile app game that uses a score simulator based on life events.

Why do people participate in hackathons?

It isn’t just the competition that drives people to join hackathons. There is a level of excitement involved. These events allow students and professionals to have a product to add to their resume. There’s fulfillment in seeing a final product come to life.

“It’s so exciting to try and put something together in such a short period of time with people that you either just met or that you were already friends with,” said Vivian Fong, a computer science senior who participated in Cal Poly’s Third Annual Design and Dev Hackathon this year. “Everybody has a set of skills that they bring to the table and at the end of the day, you get to see all these creations that each team has made in such a short period of time.”

Hackathons aren’t merely about fun; they’re about turning an idea into something more concrete. Even the Facebook “like” option is a product of a hackathon. And it’s creations like these that bring out sponsors like Red Bull, Transunion and Apple at Cal Poly hackathons, especially at Design and Dev.

“These are top-notch Google engineers that came to help people all day long on their Saturday,” said Lorraine Donegan, a Cal Poly graphic communication professor who was in charge of setting up the event.

Some companies will bring in their own software and see what products can work off that, Donegan said.

But not all hackathons are as serious. On May 14, San Francisco will host the “Shit No One Needs & Terrible Ideas 2.0” hackathon that boasts a banana zipper as its promotional picture.

Hackathons in San Luis Obispo

Cal Poly’s Third Annual Design and Dev Hackathon challenged computer science majors, graphic designers and business entrepreneurs to work as a team to create a web-based, phone-based or digital watch app that is worthy of a jaw-dropping stare and a standing ovation.

It was once a couple of $50 gift card prizes and a somewhat small group of Cal Poly students, but has ballooned to a roaring storm of students competing for more than $9,000 in prizes.

More than 100 students gathered at the sold out event on April 8 to pitch ideas for the creation of an app that would be fully realized the following day. Pitches included everything from an app that makes cooking easier by using a recipe-sharing service to one that allows the Woods Humane Society, a local animal service, to map which dogs need to be fed and which ones need to be walked.

On April 9, teams of students met at 7 a.m. to start working on their apps. The building was quickly filled with the chatter of voices, the tapping of keyboards and the smell of free food.

Teams started hacking away at their projects while various workshops were held throughout the day, including a workshop where a Google representative taught programming languages and one where an Apple representative taught Swift, the program that helps developers create apps for the Apple Watch.

“You learn a lot and that’s such a huge incentive,” Fong said. “The people around you have all these skills that you don’t have and you have skills that maybe other people don’t have so that sharing of skills was really fun.”

Some of the notable apps created at the Cal Poly hackathon were:

  • Gleam: to generate a connection between creators and causes
  • Shoal: to give discounts based on community service time at local businesses
  • Echo: to bring up difficult conversations that sometimes go unspoken in relationships and family through simplistic means
  • The winner, Repay: to create a streamlined service for interviewees to be repaid by companies

The concept of “Repay” plays off an idea that many graduating students go through. According to the team, there isn’t an efficient process for interviewees to be repaid for expenses from traveling to and from an interview.

The app allows for a speedy reimbursement of expenses by cutting out the cumbersome process of multiple emails and/or phone calls — instead, the app allows immediate results. While the team wasn’t able to complete the entire app within the time frame, like most of the teams, they were able to create a working product within the time constraints that left the judges wanting more.

“There’s just instant gratification (with hackathons),” said Esha Joshi, a computer science senior and “Repay” team member. “Realistically in that sort of time frame, you can’t get that much done, but when it’s a hackathon, you just have to in order to compete with the other teams.”

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