Lessons from Houston Hackathon

May 22, 2013 at 7:49pm

I had the awesome opportunity to attend the first ever City of Houston Open Innovation Hackathon last Saturday at the Houston Technology Center. Although I've had plenty of experience with programming/algorithmic contests like UIL and Lockheed Martin CodeQuest, and dabbled in computer security with picoCTF, hackathoning was a new experience for me. I've worked on projects and app concepts on my own with things like DeuterIDE on Android and my blog in PHP, and Hackathon gave my teammates Andy and Chufan and me an opportunity to utilize those skills to create actually usable applications with real world impacts.

We arrived at the HTC at 7 in the morning not really knowing what to expect. We helped ourselves to some bagels and mingled for a while in the main room. There we met Dan and Kevin, who by crazy random happenstance used to attend our school. The fact that we could meet people who came from a relatively different background but shared that giant commonality is really one of the coolest parts of going to events like Houston Hackathon. They joined our crew as Idea Generators and worked with us throughout the day.

Our hackathon project, CrowdFix, is a civic crowdsourcing platform where residents can submit ideas and suggestions for the betterment of their community and vote on their favorite ones. The front was designed in Flatstrap, the back in PHP and MySQL, and some jQuery calls tied it all together. We had tremendous help from Paul, a Microsoft Technology Evangelist, deploying our app to Azure.

Some Stuff I Learned

Packaged in neat, aphoristic phrases!

Have a Plan or Two for Deployment

Deployment of the demo app is supposed to be the easy part. We had some scary moments and spent too much time pushing our app to Azure because we were simply unprepared; our Apache mod_rewrite rules made IIS sad, and it took some magic on Paul's part to get that one in order. Our backup plan was to deploy to my server, but we forgot to make our links relative to a directory instead of the server document root. Ouch. In any case, it was a learning experience. Some of the various methods of deployment I saw during presentations (aside from Azure) included Google App Engine, Meteor, Github, etc.

Twitter is Kind of a Big Deal

During the introductory keynote, #hackhou began to trend on Twitter, which was super awesome. I contributed some tweets, but I realized after I got home that since I usually never use my Twitter account, I forgot to disable the privacy setting and none of my Tweets were visible. Way to go, self. I realized, however, that I really do need to use Twitter — because everyone else does! Following the #hackhou tag has also led me to keep up with the photo albums and news during and after the event, including an article in Xconomy graciously featuring my teammates and me.

It's About People

With each application presented came the implicit question: How would the product use technology to improve something for real users? Houston Hackathon brought people together because of technology, but the focus was ultimately on the communities of civic-minded people who are invested in making the city a great place to live. The best part of my experience and the biggest takeaway memory for me was getting to know some awesome, talented people — not to mention practicing my networking skills and getting better at talking to people and getting out of my comfort zone.

Going forward from my time at Hackathon, I'm hoping to keep involved with the local technology community. Many of the amazing people I spoke with at the event expressed interest in connecting with the high school CS education community, and hopefully my role with the CS club can help facilitate that. Nearing the end of the school year and the beginning of summer and my internship, I'm nothing but excited about the possibilities of a future in technology.