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Coders complete first large-scale MU hackathon

A crowd of people seated at tables watches a presentation given by two male students at the front of the room.

Organizers explain Hack Mizzou’s objectives before the start of the competition. Photo by Dale Musser

It was eight hours of the biggest kamikaze coding event the University of Missouri has ever seen.

Hack Mizzou, MU’s first university-wide coding blitz, marked what organizer Daniel Silver predicts will be a new tradition for computer science at the College of Engineering.

“Hack Mizzou was created just this year,” Silver explained. “There are a lot of other hackathons around the country, like PennApps and HackMIT, but this is the first hackathon through ACM [Association for Computing Machinery]. There are some smaller programming competitions around the state, but nothing with prizes like this or with this many sponsors. Nothing this big.”

Around 100 contestants, judges and spectators gathered in the MU Memorial Union Benton Bingham Ballroom on Nov. 3 to collaborate, compete and “hack out” a full day’s worth of apps, websites and data sifting programs, all centered on the theme of “social,” including social mapping, social visualization and data analysis. Judges from the event’s seven tech industry sponsors awarded points for the creativity, usefulness and implementation of each project, doling out prizes including hard drives and Amazon gift cards.

“Competitions like this allow students to apply what they’ve learned in class,” Silver said. “It’s important that students just practice that creative side. They can create whatever app they can dream of on a team and work together and collaborate on code, and that’s just not something a lot of students have seen so far.”

Silver, vice president of the MU chapter of ACM, began organizing Hack Mizzou back in July. He and his fellow board members rallied tech industry sponsors, organized the logistics and recruited student programmers from MU and the Missouri University of Science and Technology.

Silver got the idea for a MU hackathon after competing at the University of Pennsylvania’s PennApps, the largest student hackathon in North America.

“It’s just incredible,” Silver said, “because all around you hear geek speak, and you just understand it. There’s just never been anything like that here until now.”

Not just an adrenaline-filled exercise, hackathons are opportunities for students to bounce ideas off of other programmers, not to mention do some serious networking with industry professionals. The Hack Mizzou entry fee? A copy of your resume handed straight to the sponsors.

“[The sponsors] just look forward to seeing a lot of talent,” Silver said. “Chatting with people, seeing their processes and ideas, and of course seeing the results at the end. It’s great for everyone.”

Electrical and computer engineering freshman Corey Matzat saw the event as a learning experience, first and foremost.

“I’ve always really enjoyed programming and this just seemed like a really good opportunity to expand my knowledge through live working with experienced programmers,” Matzat said prior to the competition. “Outside of this, I’ve only done programming in structured classes or on my own, so this is my first time doing it in any kind of competition environment. Also, just the planning process that goes into making a bigger project like this is something I haven’t done before.”

“It was great meeting everyone and showing off what we could do,” said computer science major Sam Kreter. “I definitely have a better idea of how applications come together and what little tricks you can use to make the magic happen.”

Kreter said his favorite app was a National Security Agency watch list that a team developed under the “social visualization” category.

“Twitter lets you track where tweets are coming from through their API [application programming interface],” explained Kreter. “So the team made a live map showing which parts of the U.S. were hotspots for those keywords. I just thought that was really cool.”

Code sprints like Hack Mizzou put programmers in their element, whatever it may be: solo or collaborative; exploring new techniques or flexing existing muscles. Hackathons give budding and veteran programmers alike the much-needed push to explore, take chances, and perhaps most importantly, flaunt their skills out in the open.

“Mizzou needs this,” said Silver. “It’s just great practice for the students, and you don’t get that kind of collaboration in class. I think this is really important for us. We’re going to try to make this a tradition here and grow it every time.”

2013 Hack Mizzou winners:

  • Dwolla API Prize: Ryan Endacott, Eric Gaudiello and Shane Burkhart for creating “Dwollify”, a universal donate button for the web.
  • Social Analysis: Georgi Angelov, Sam Jonesi and Rahul Singh for creating “FriendFinder,” an automatic dating service with data pulled from social media.
  • Social Mapping: Mike Phinney, Sean Lander, Hongfei Cao and Alexander Paino for creating “Social Sonar,” a tool to visualize nearby tweets using an interface similar to radar.
  • Social Visualization: Wenbo Wang, Connor Knabe, Tyler Callan and Ryanne Dolan

Burkhart is a Missouri S&T student. All others are MU students.