Date February 8, 2016
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Student hack-a-thon draws a diverse crowd

Students from all over the country and around the world gathered this weekend for [email protected], a marathon of computer coding and app building. Student organizers aim for an event that's open and inviting to students from all backgrounds and skill levels.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — There was no lack of creative ideas bouncing around Brown’s Sayles and Wilson Halls this past weekend. There was, however, a distinct lack of sleep.

Starting Saturday afternoon, 450 students from across the country and around the world gathered on College Hill for [email protected], a student-run, 24-hour marathon of intensive coding and app building. The students split into teams and tapped away on their laptops through the night, with the aim creating working products by Sunday evening.

This was the third year for [email protected] and the first hack-a-thon for Rhode Island School of Design student Pezanne Khambatta. “It’s just a brilliant concept,” he said. “You work on one project with a bunch of people you probably never met before, and let’s see what’s the best thing you can come up with.”

The weekend wrapped up with a group of finalists presenting their projects and a panel of judges choosing winners in a variety of categories. While claiming a prize is nice, it’s not necessarily the point of the event, says Athyuttam Eleti, a junior at Brown and an event co-organizer.

“My hope is that they leave the weekend having the confidence that they can build anything,” he said. “If we succeed in even one person feeling that way, then I think we’ve done what we wanted to do.”

A different kind of hack-a-thon

Hack-a-thons have become popular on college campuses and in tech circles over the last decade. They have a reputation for being founts of creative ideas and new apps, but they also have a reputation for being competitive, male-dominated, and not particularly welcome to first-timers, Eleti says.

That’s why the [email protected] organizers wanted to create a different kind of hack-a-thon. The Brunonian version emphasizes diversity and cooperation over competition.

“Inclusiveness and diversity are baked into our DNA,” Eleti said. “Those are the values that [[email protected]] was founded on, and those are the values that we continue to hold. They’re also fundamentally Brown’s values and the computer science department’s values.”

Coders in Sayles Hall
[email protected] central
Coders packed Sayles Hall to produce their projects
Frank Mullin / Brown University

While many hack-a-thons choose participants based on their resumes and coding experience, [email protected] participants are chosen by lottery, weighted to ensure a diverse group. This year, [email protected] had a 50/50 gender ratio, Eleti says, and a racial diversity on par with national demographics. Nearly half this year’s participants were first-time hackers.

[email protected] also offers travel reimbursement for students coming in from outside Providence.

“I think something that’s not as talked about is economic diversity,” said Sharon Lo, a senior computer science concentrator and event co-organizer. “We didn’t want the cost of traveling to Brown to be a barrier to people coming here.”

[email protected]’s approach seems to be popular. When it debuted in 2014, there were 300 participants chosen from around 500 applicants. This year, there were 450 participants from a pool of more than 2,600 applicants. Attendees came from 84 different schools around the country, and from as far away ask the U.K., Mexico, and the Netherlands.

A finished product

It has also drawn some high-level attention. The event kicked off on Saturday with welcoming addresses from Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, state CIO Richard Culatta, and Karen Catlin, a Brown graduate, former vice president at Adobe systems, and advocate for women in technology.

After that, it was time to get to work.

Some students already had a team in place when the hack-a-thon started, but most formed teams on the spot. Once formed, the teams brainstormed their ideas, chose a project, and started coding. More than 75 mentors, mostly Brown alumni, were on hand to help teams if they got stuck.

Lucy Wei, a Brown freshman and first-time hacker, said the mentors were a big help.

“They were definitely great just talking over our ideas,” she said. “Talking things out with people who are experts … was really helpful.”

The projects the students developed over the course of the weekend ranged from a virtual reality karaoke app to a platform that helps Medicare providers better communicate with their patients. There was also an app that scoured Twitter to see which side was winning the smack talk war between Panthers and Broncos fans. It was, after all, Superbowl Sunday.

The overall winner was a project called Ideaback, a web app for group brainstorming. It allows users to anonymously submit ideas to an idea map, where other users can anonymously vote ideas up or down. It was designed, the developers said, to combat unconscious biases in group settings, such as the tendency to pay attention to the person with the loudest voice rather than the best idea.

Preston Perriott, a student at Johnson & Wales University, worked with a group to develop a game that can be played on the Occulus Rift virtual reality headset. While he was pleased with the final product, it was the process of building it that was important to him.

“Building those relationships and then building something together—that’s the amazing part,” he said. “We didn’t even know each other, and we did this together.”

The event closed on Sunday evening with an awards ceremony and closing keynotes by Peter Norvig and Evan Stites-Clayton, founder of Teepsring.

Norvig, a Brown alum and director of research at Google, said he was happy to see students “working together, trying to teach and learn from each other. I think that’s great.”