HackMIT 2015

A couple of weekends ago, I travelled to Cambridge, Massachusetts for my first hackathon ever. I went to MIT with three other team members to participate in HackMIT 2015. I was very excited to have had the chance to be part of such a well-organized hackathon.

After a short day of Friday classes, I rushed to shove all the necessary hacking gear into my backpack. I quickly printed out my bus tickets and jumped aboard for the ride to Chicago. On the bus, I met with my teammates, and we discussed our plans, or rather the lack of, for the hackathon. What were we going to make? Cloud-sourced data mining? Some kind of web application? A delivery service? We couldn’t come to a consensus, so we simply agreed to table the discussion for the airport, and to catch a little bit of rest before our flight.

A heavy front of weather assaulted O’Hare airport when we arrived, pouring down sheets of rain. The inbound flight was delayed, which gave us more time to decide what we wanted to build. We eventually agreed to use a few of the available APIs at the event to write a web application for a delivery service.

Our flight touched down at Logan around 2 in the morning. We took a taxi to the Kresge Oval on MIT campus. My teammates and I immediately saw the HackMIT sign and approached the check-in tent. The check-in staff handed us an airbed and a dual pump for the night. We would be staying the night with assigned student hosts, and I was very excited to meet mine. We waited until our student hosts came to greet us and walk us over to their places.

I walked down Vassar Street with my host, getting to know him better. He was a mechanical engineering major, or a Course 2. True to his major, he analyzed the dual pump that we would use to inflate my airbed within seconds, pointing out its various mechanisms and valves that it used, and how the overall design could be improved. My host briefly showed me around his room, and we both promptly went to sleep.

After a few hours of rest, I made my way back towards Kresge Oval. The opening ceremony began, and each of the companies present made a small pitch about some of the prizes that they were offering. Following the pitches, we ultimately decided to use Postmates delivery API and the Google Maps API to write a web application that would deliver surplus restaurant food to food pantries and homeless shelters.

The hacking began right after the opening ceremony. We found an empty available table, and dove right into the coding. I began writing some simple starter HTML homepage templates for our application, while my teammates hacked away with the API in javascript and python.

HackMIT 2015. The hackathon was held inside MIT's ice-skating rink.

HackMIT 2015. The hackathon was held inside MIT’s ice-skating rink.

The hours ticked away very rapidly, and we soon found ourselves with less than 6 hours left of hacking. However, the build was far from complete. The frontend still looked very clunky, and we were having issues integrating the Postmates API with the frontend. We quickly resolved to use Flask for facilitating the integration of the APIs in python, and set out to complete the backend. For the next couple of hours, we immersed and gave ourselves a very brief crash course in Flask.

While I felt that we were moving in the correct direction, two hours of Flask was not enough to relieve our build of a menacing 500 server error. Despite the help and assistance of the corporate mentors present, we were still unable to release a stable, working build of our web application. The hacking promptly concluded after a false fire alarm that forced all of us out of the building.

After the hacking ended, we pitched our delivery web application to multiple corporate sponsors and individual judges. The whole pitching process harkened back to high school science fair days, as I felt the routine was quite similar. Despite making a somewhat incomplete web application, I still found it very rewarding and exciting to explain our idea to other people.

MIT's central library, taken from Killian Court.

MIT’s central library, taken from Killian Court.

My teammates and I left the award ceremony thoroughly exhausted. We trekked nearly 3 miles across Cambridge to check into a hotel to get some rest before our flight. All of us were asleep within a matter of seconds. Soon enough, however, it was time to catch our flight back to Chicago. We wearily boarded our flight back to O’Hare, and then caught our bus back to campus. Immediately after we arrived, we all hurried over to the Digital Computer Laboratory for our morning Computer Architecture lecture. It would still take us the rest of our Monday to drop down from our hackathon high.

Flying back into Chicago on an early Monday morning.

Flying back into Chicago on an early Monday morning.

Overall, HackMIT was a very humbling experience for me. It was enlightening to leave the Champaign-Urbana bubble and see the great ideas that other people were building. I personally enjoyed investing the time to build our idea from scratch. Although the hackathon left me mentally and physically exhausted beyond measure, I will be coming back for more. Our hackathon project left me thinking about avenues for improvement and new ideas, all of which I would like to see through in the future.

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