Johns Hopkins students pull all-nighters for 36-hour HopHacks hackathon

Participants team up to create computer applications, compete for prizes

Image credit: Will Kirk / Johns Hopkins University

A team of sophomore computer science and biomedical engineering majors took home the grand prize of $1,024 Sunday at HopHacks, Johns Hopkins University's first-ever student-led hackathon.

The winning entry was "DropMe," a location-aware media-sharing application for iOS that enables users to "drop" a message, picture, or file at an on-screen location based on mobile phone GPS. It was developed by Brian Ho, Ben Lu, Willis Wang, and Miles Zhang and was judged to have the highest levels of creativity, technical difficulty, polish, and usefulness out of the 24 applications presented Sunday morning in Shaffer Hall.

"We were very impressed by what you all managed to do in a weekend. A big thumbs up to everyone," said Jason Eisner, a computer science professor who sat on the judges' panel with fellow professors Peter Froehlich and Scott Smith, as well as Devon O'Dell from content delivery network Fastly and John Bienko of the U.S. Small Business Administration.

About 120 Hopkins undergraduate and graduate students—some working alone and others in teams of up to four—took part in the event, which ran Friday night through midday Sunday on the Homewood campus and brought people together to take part in collaborative computer programming. Though hackers were free to work on any applications, organizer Daniel Swann suggested in advance that some consider creating an application that "benefits the city in some way."

"There is a big dataset called 'OpenBaltimore' that houses data about crime and traffic patterns, and we encouraged people to leverage that," said Swann, a junior who got the idea for the event after he and several computer science classmates returned form PennApps 2013, the University of Pennsylvania's student-run event. "We thought it would be awesome to do it here, because it encourages innovation and entrepreneurship. This is what I think of as civic hacking."

Swann, together with Ben Glickman, Nathan Schloss, and Tyler Cloutier, worked over the summer to organize the event and to convince Facebook, Bloomberg L.P., GitHub, EPIC, and the Social Innovation Lab to provide sponsorships.

Fueled by countless cups of coffee and Red Bull and fortified by nourishment ranging from sandwiches and Indian food to pizza, ice cream, and bagels, the student hackers worked for 36 consecutive hours on their applications in Hackerman Hall.

"One of the hardest parts was just not being able to take a shower for all that time," said a grinning Aaron Bornstein, a senior at Goucher College who is taking courses at Hopkins as part of the Baltimore Student Exchange Progam. Bornstein's team presented "Automated Tag Prediction," a tool that helps better classify hashtags to make searches more accurate and to make it easier to spot trends.

Applications ran the gamut. One, SuperScale, would enable people to turn their smartphones into scales. Another, Bmore Safe, assesses a person's risk of being the victim of a crime based on time of day and location. And another, Dorm Sec, aims to make college dormitories safer through the use of data scanned from driver's licenses and J-cards.

Others included an application (Bmore Sheltr) that allows homeless people to use smartphones to locate the nearest shelters and food banks; At Risk, which uses stats from the Centers for Disease Control plus age, gender, race, and other demographic information to assess one's risk of illness and accident; and Bmore Happy, which not only recommends good happy hours at various locations throughout the city, but also can reveal which bars and restaurants friends frequent.

"I felt that overall, the event was a tremendous success," said Swann, who already is planning another hackathon for next semester. "The winning hacks were extremely creative and well polished, and I felt that the winners definitely deserved their prizes. It was amazing to see so many innovative ideas developed over this short 36-hour period. I could even see some of the projects possibly being spun off into startups or independent studies."

Second prize, $512, went to the all-sophomore team of Farhan Damani, Blaine Muri, and Jason Albalah for "SuperScale," and third prize ($256) went to the graduate student team of Rahil Arora, Ankit Sharma, Nishikant Deshmukh, and Saramjeet Prasad for "Facebook Concerts," which allow hosts of events to sell tickets online through Facebook. This application also won the Facebook prize.