Sunday mornings at the College are usually slow to start. This past weekend, however, student programmers were busy hacking.
The term “hack” evokes movie stills of dingy basements, dim lighting and green text on black backgrounds. In the computer science world, the phrase refers to the process of developing programs to solve problems. In recent years, coding, software engineering and app development have been exponentially rising in popularity, allowing for the birth of a “hacker culture” along with multi-day events called “hackathons.”
Generally speaking, hackathons span across schools, states and even continents. The biggest ones, such as Hack the North at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and HackGT at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, draw thousands of participants from dozens of countries across the globe. Teams of up to four people compete for awards ranging from “Most Innovative” to “Funniest Hack,” sometimes accompanied by thousands of dollars in prizes. Sponsors for such events will often occupy the space, offering mentorship, energy drinks and free goodies.
On Sunday, the College held its first annual hackathon, EphHacks. The day began early at 10 a.m. in the Thompson Chemistry Lab, with the revelation of the theme: “Projects that will help the Williams communi-ty.” Teams immediately began to form, with some students having grouped up beforehand and others finding groups in the spur of the moment. Hungry hackers quickly emptied a table of breakfast foods at the front of the room on their way to stake out their own quiet corners of science quad.
Hacking officially began at 11 a.m., affording participants a solid hour to brainstorm projects. A sense of collaboration and friendly competition was ever-present as programmers threw out potential ideas for web and mobile apps. Solutions to every observable problem at the College were suggested, from the environmentally-conscious to the academically useful. Eventually, a few gems rose to the top of the batch and coding finally began in earnest.
Each student came to EphHacks with a different set of talents. Some hackers are proficient in web and user interface design, while others may have experience in mobile app development. Some may be hardware hackers with their own arsenal of tools. Even more impressive is the spread of programming languages, including Python, Java and HTML/CSS, used throughout the day. With so many varied abilities and skill levels joining forces on projects, it comes as no surprise that the 24-hour coding period (with breaks for pizza) was just enough time to develop a mostly functional prototype and presentation.
Throughout the day and night, each project went through a number of key phases of development. Teams usually started with the bare minimum of code, creating skeletons of the final project to build on. Next came the functions that allowed the target audience, the College community, to use the program, which was soon followed by hours of frustrating debugging. Finally, designers laid their work on the body of the team’s code, giving the project a sleeker finish and more satisfying user interface. This final product is what was eventually presented to a panel of judges.
This year, the judges consisted of Andrea Danyluk, professor of computer science, Jeannie Albrecht, associate professor of computer science, Chris Warren ’96, founder of Dandelion Technologies and Joe Bergeron ’01, co-founder of FoodLove. Each judge scored projects for three prizes: Most Creative/Innovative, Best Execution and Best Design/User Interface, as well as a fourth People’s Choice prize, based on audience votes.
At 11 a.m. on Monday, each of the teams with a working project drew numbers to present. Some hacks were built for a mobile platform, such as EphPlaces. This app allowed the user to view the hours during which buildings on campus were open (and see what events were happening with free food). Other hacks aimed to showcase the College community, like EphCreate. This website gave students a platform to share their projects and view others’ work. Others were entertaining, such as Eph’d Up. This Google Chrome extension changed all “eef” syllables in Chrome to “eph” and made every search for “cow” on Google Images yield purple cows instead.
The weekend was a first in the College’s history, and it was particularly special for some of this campus’s hackers. Yoon Hong ’20 was a member of the team that won the Best Execution prize with its project ReqTrak, a website to track all of a student’s major requirements. “[A lot of us] are freshmen … so we were a little intimidated going into this, but we pulled through and made a very cool app that we are proud of,” she said.