An inside look at a Hackathon


by JOE FRYER / KING 5 News

Posted on December 28, 2011 at 7:22 PM

Updated Wednesday, Dec 28 at 7:41 PM

SEATTLE -- The name makes it sound more sinister than it really is. 

Hackathons are a growing trend in the Pacific Northwest.  They bring together volunteers -- often for several days -- to build Web programs and applications.  More and more companies and organizations are using hackathons to solve tech-related problems or create something innovative.

KING 5 teamed up with Adobe and Amazon to put on an event called "Hacking Seattle News" in October.  The challenge presented to participants: build a new Web page or app for Seattle news.

A few dozen people showed up Friday night to take part in the hackathon.  Some, like Lewis Lin, were veteran hackers.  This was his sixth one.

But others, like Amanda Vilbrandt, were rookies. 

"I'm excited to stay up all night and not sleep and eat really poorly," she said.

The hackers were immediately presented with their problem: build Seattle's news home page.  With so many local online options -- from mainstream media to community blogs to social networking sites -- users are flooded with options.   

"We need to find a way to get more people interacting and engaging with the news," Ben Huh, founder of Cheezburger Network, told the group.

As an added incentive, the winning team would receive $10,000.

Everyone was given two minutes to pitch an idea, then they campaigned for teammates.

Many were attracted to Leon Wong's idea, called "Dimensions."  His Web site would filter news by time and location, making it easier for users to read what they want to read.  His team was, by far, the largest. 

Others formed smaller groups and a few preferred to work by themselves. 

By Saturday morning, 11 teams were in place.  Most of the day was spent coding and developing their ideas. 

Pascal Schuback's idea would allow users to report emergencies and other things they witness through a phone app.

Evan Jacobs' idea, called "City Story," gives people a chance to call a phone number and report things that they think are interesting.  Others could then visit a Web site to hear what others are reporting. 

Amit Schechter and Jason Malcolm were created something called "Newsroomz," which is basically a site that hosts virtual rooms for users to discuss various news events.

Some of the groups worked non-stop to finish their projects by the Sunday afternoon deadline.  Others took breaks to spend time with family. 

Adam Loving, who joined Team Dimensions, decided to step away for a bit Saturday night to catch the Sounders game with his wife. 

"Hopefully they'll still talk to me in the morning," he said with a laugh.  "But I feel pretty comfortable about it."

Meanwhile, first-time hacker Vilbrandt and her boyfriend Brian Immel decided to pull an all-nighter.

"My eyes are pretty puffy and I'm not quite as quick as I was a couple hours ago," Immel said as the clock struck 4 a.m.

By Sunday morning, all 11 teams were back in the Adobe workroom, putting the finishing touches on their presentations. 

But Audrey Miller and Jacob Greer did not have much to show.  Server problems kept them from getting very far. 

"We're going to get a fog machine," Miller joked.  "We'd have more luck in acquiring a fog machine on a Sunday than finishing this project."

"We're trying to get the rights to Barbra Streisand's 'Don't Rain on My Parade,'" Greer interjected with a laugh.

Each group was given ten minutes to make their presentations and answer questions from the panel of judges. 

In the end, the final decision was nearly unanimous: Dimensions was the winner.

The large team was presented with a large copy of a $10,000 check. 

"If we weren't so tired, we'd go out for beers," said team leader Wong.  "We'd blow this on beer."

The win meant a lot to Wong, who just quit his corporate job a few weeks earlier. 

"Any slice that I get is going to the bills, the wife, the baby," he said.

After the hackathon, Wong joined forces with one of his teammates, Lewis Lin, to start a new company.  The two men did not know each other before the hackathon. 

As for the winning idea, KING 5 will work with developers and Wong to make the project a reality.  It should be launched sometime in 2012.