Hack to the Future: Rochester’s First 24-hour Hackathon

It’s a race against the clock as the hackathon participants complete as much coding and rapid prototyping as possible in 24 hours. (Photo by Jack Valinsky ’15)

By Sofia Tokar
University Communications

Computer programming is often a solitary endeavor. But humans are inherently social creatures.

So how do you engage a group of programmers in a way that’s fun and productive?

Answer: a hackathon.

Like book clubs for readers, hackathons regularly bring together computer programmers, coders, and developers with a shared love for building better software (and occasionally hardware) tools for themselves and others. Hackathons can last anywhere from a few hours to several days, and they often have an educational, social, or philanthropic bent.

In the last couple of years, Rochester’s computer science students have led the hacking movement at the University.

A brief history of the hack pack

Although the term “hacker” has negative connotations, groups like RocHack reclaim the term to mean builders and creators.

two students with laptops helping each other out

Bring your own laptop. The hackathon was held in Rettner Hall, with the first floor reserved for the hackers. (Photo by Jack Valinsky ’15)

Founded in September 2012, RocHack bills itself as “a group of hackers, engineers, builders, and friendly people who attend the University of Rochester.” Several Rochester students formed RocHack as a subset of the Computer Science Undergraduate Council (CSUG), a campus student organization.

In December 2013, the group hosted its first hackathon, an eight-hour event with the theme “Make UR Better.” The results included projects such as UR Bus Schedules (an easy way to access the campus bus schedules), Skedge (an alternative course scheduling system for the University), and Cluster Navigator (a visual tool to explore the Rochester curriculum as a graph of courses and clusters).

With the success of December’s event, the group decided it was time to hack things up a notch.

Spring into hacking action

On April 12 and 13, Rettner Hall hosted its first-ever daylong hacking gathering: the Spring 2014 RocHack Hackathon.

Computer science majors and CSUG members Steve Gattuso ’16 and Dan Hassin ’16 organized the event featuring half a dozen corporate sponsors (including Google) and more than 60 participants.

The goal? Come to the hackathon with an idea, work on it for 24 hours, complete as much coding and rapid prototyping as possible, then present the work—and potentially win prizes. Sleep is optional.

“You can bond with other people who love to build things,” says Gattuso. “It’s also a great way to learn how to code. We have a lot of experienced people who are happy to teach others.”

group of student laughing and taking around a table filled with laptops and other computer equipment

Steve Gattuso ’16 (center, plaid shirt) checks in with some of the hackers on day one. (Photo by Jack Valinsky ’15)

Participants brought their own laptops, but Gattuso and Hassin supplied plenty of workspace and food for the coders. “We wanted to encourage electrical engineers to attend, so we provided materials for hardware hacking as well,” explains Gattuso.

At 2 p.m. on Saturday, the hacking commenced.

Show and tell

After 24 hours of brainstorming, prototyping, coding, and testing, the participants presented their work.

The projects ranged from the practical to the elaborate. These included an application that generates customizable complaint emails based on how angry you are; a Reddit notification app for Chrome; a life-size interactive musical and visual tone matrix; a homemade operating system; and a distributed IRC system.

Demonstrating impressive technical know-how, these latter two projects tied for first place.

Next steps for RocHack

Gattuso and Hassin plan to hold another RocHack Hackathon next spring, and are considering making the event a semi-annual one.

“Most of the hackers this year were Rochester students,” says Hassin. “But with some more advertising and promotion, we hope to increase participation from area colleges and universities. We also want to encourage more people who are new to computer science to attend.”

As Gattuso and Hassin say, all you need is the desire to build.

student sleeping face down on the lawn

Hard day’s night: Sleep is optional at a hackathon. (Photo by Jack Valinsky ’15)

Learn more about

RocHack at http://rochack.org

Computer Science at Rochester at https://www.cs.rochester.edu