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Hanging out with hackers at #HackingCBCMTL

03/16/2015 09:14 EDT | Updated 05/16/2015 05:59 EDT
If there’s such a thing as a hackathon hangover, I’ve got one.

No alcohol involved, but an entire weekend spent soaking in a room full of creative energy, steep learning curves, new ideas, sharp minds, technical jenesaisquoi, deadline stress, sleep deprivation, candy, candy, and more candy.

This was my first hackathon and it was a lot to take in….but I loved it.

As #HackingCBCMTL got underway Friday evening, and participants tried to assess who they wanted to team up with, the room was pretty quiet and energy levels seemed low.

No trace of the excitement to come.

A developer approached me asking questions about how CBC journalists do their jobs and what kind of app could help us.

ShuangShuangZhao, who is studying computer science at Concordia University, was already full of ideas and had shown up with a teammate — his friend Pradeep Samuel, a software engineering student at Concordia.

“(We) always go to hackathons...so basically as long as there's a hackathon in Montreal, we're going to go!” Zhao said, with a big smile.

I thought this might be the team to follow for the story I was preparing for Daybreak but I wanted to meet a few more people first.

Noah Chaimowicz, who says he’s a “start-up guy” with a background in finance, asked me something about CBC’s “data architecture.”

Blank stare.

“I have no idea what that is,” I told him.

Whoa. I thought, “This could be a long weekend if I can’t understand what the tech experts are saying.”

​That’s when I noticed the supply of candy — jujubes, sour keys, gummy bears...right beside what I hear was an endless supply of coffee.

This hackathon was looking good again.

Next thing I knew, the start-up guy had teamed up with the Concordia students.

While they are always up for any hackathon challenge, he was especially interested in CBC.

“Because the CBC is involved with journalism and information and media, which is really I.T.’s backbone — or at least where we think the big lever could be for making change in the world,”  Chaimowicz said.

They got talking about their ideas...

Fatigue and Food

By Saturday morning most teams were formed, there was smoked salmon and bagels for breakfast and of course, lots of coffee.

At this point Christine Rogers, who builds databases for neuroscience research at McGill University, had joined the team.

They were busy creating an app, called CBCME, that displays the news stories happening within a five to 15 kilometres from your location. A map pops up with markers and clicking the markers leads to articles, photos, video related to the event.

They also wanted to include a live chat feature where reporters and anyone using the app can connect.

I noticed Zhao yawning as he grabbed a coffee.

Turns out after CBC closed its doors at 10 p.m. he kept working on the app until 1 a.m. Then he worked on an assignment for his Master’s degree — due Sunday — until 5 a.m.  

Why come to #HackingCBCMTL the same weekend university assignments are due?

“I love it too much, too much. It's my life ...I like hackathons too much reallly,” Zhao said, laughing.

What does he love especially about this hackathon? The food — Schwartz’s for lunch!

There was also a break for pie at 3:14 p.m. to celebrate Pi Day. 

​But the breaks were short and it was back to work for another long night.

Prepping the Pitch

The team was full of energy Sunday as they prepared their pitch. (link video)

Christine Rogers was supposed to be on the ice with her hockey team. She had said she would miss the pitch, but she couldn’t stay away.

“I just got hooked….I wanted to see how the final projects came together and honestly not just from our group, from everyone here,” Rogers said.

Zhao was giddy as he showed me the app on his mobile phone.

He was especially tickled by an alien icon and showed me how I could add information about an alien sighting to the map.

The energy in the room had completely changed since Friday as all the teams geared up for their big moment.

Time’s Up

The first group to pitch was strong — they’d created a text line that was already up and running and the judges were able to try it.

Then another group presented a similar map app. This team felt it was too similar.

Tensions were rising.

When it was time to pitch, technical difficulties setting up the display on the big screen caused a delay and seemed to rattle some nerves.

Finally it was ready — and before we knew it — the 3-minute pitch was done.

One judge, ShelaghKinch, CBC Montreal’s Managing Director, said she was still trying to understand the pitch.

The team held out hope... but in the end, did not win.

None of them sees this as a loss.

ShuangShuangZhao and Pradeep Samuel want to keep improving the app — between school assignments.

Noah Chaimowicz is thinking about pitching another idea to CBC.

And Christine Rogers is eager to see what CBC will do next.

“A lot of people here are bringing visions for really game-changing future things...it'll be interesting to see how many of those ideas are really followed up on by the CBC,” she said.

After everyone left, the busiest part of the hackathon for me was just getting started.

Preparing my Daybreak story about #HackingCBCMTL kept me busy well into the night.

But now, like the hackers I met, I need to get some sleep!


 

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