Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Friday, September 13, 2013

Big House hackathon expected to break record

More than 1,200 techies from across the country are expected to converge on Michigan Stadium next week for a 36-hour blitz of creative coding at what could be the world's largest collegiate hackathon.

"What venue's more appropriate to host it than North America's biggest stadium?" said Jack Wink, a computer science and engineering junior who helped to organize the event, called MHacks 2013.


Alexander Biggs (right) of the University of Toronto, and Rashad Russel and Miker Angalz of the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign work in a hallway at Palmer Commons during the 2012 hackathon. Learn more about MHacks 2013. (Photo by Joseph Xu, College of Engineering)

The geek lock-in at the Big House begins at 9 p.m. Sept. 20. The student organizers say they're on track for a bigger crowd than PennApps, a similar event at the University of Pennsylvania that attracted more than 1,000 earlier this month.

Chartered buses will deliver students to Ann Arbor from about 100 universities in the U.S. and Canada.

"We've coordinated transportation from all over the country. From east of the Rockies and north of the Mason-Dixon line, they'll be coming by bus. And from the South and California and even internationally, they can get $200 in travel reimbursement for airfare," said Thomas Erdmann, a junior in computer science and engineering who helped organize the event. "We're excited to have a really diverse group of students show up."

While "hacking" might carry a negative connotation, the MHacks organizers point to a tradition of hacking by engineers and say the culture is about making things, not breaking them.

"Hacking is a very creative thing. It's about building new projects and teaching others how to build things," Wink said.

For example, winning projects from the first MHacks earlier this year include a website that translates spoken language and another that mimics the audio effects of expensive electric guitar hardware.

Vaccinate Me, an app that tells people what shots they need based on where they're traveling, won the Best Michigan Team award. One of the members was a doctoral student in microbiology and immunology — illustrating how students from varied academic backgrounds can collaborate on hacks. Some of the projects from 2012 are in the process of being commercialized.

The goal of events like this isn't to start a company, though. Wink and Erdmann say hackathons push participants to focus and stretch. Erdmann attended his first in 2012 at the University of Pennsylvania.

"You're in over your head," Erdmann said. "I had never met the people I was working with. I had no idea what I was doing. But 36 hours of focus really forced me to learn things. I had a team depending on me."

Together, they built what Erdmann calls a modern telegram service. It's an app called Soundwave that lets you record a message and send it to someone to receive later at a specific time. It could be available to the public soon.

Some students will have formed teams or product ideas before they arrive. Others will wait until they're here to find collaborators and inspiration. The only rule is that they can't write code until the hackathon starts.

During the event, participants can tweet with specific hashtags to request either pizza or technical help and U-M hosts will oblige. Top tech companies, including Facebook, Google, Apple and Twitter, are sending engineers to be mentors. There will be napping space available too.

Early on Sunday, the 400-500 teams will present to judges who will choose roughly 15 finalists. Finalists will give two-minute demos to all participants. These will be webcast, beginning at 1:30 p.m. Sept. 22. The first-place team will receive $10,000. In all, roughly $30,000 in prizes will be awarded.

"This is an extreme sport," Wink said. "We'll be pushing ourselves to the edge of sanity."

MHacks is organized by student organizations Michigan Hackers and MPowered Entrepreneurship. A long list of sponsors includes the U-M Division of Computer Science and Engineering, Facebook, Groupon and Hearst Automotive.