In technology talented cities and schools around the country, groups of strangers are known to congregate together for a couple of days, whiteboard concepts, drink lots of Mountain Dew, stay up late, stare at screens, and code new inventions. Wikipedia defines these as events where "computer programmers and others involved in software development, including graphic designers, interface designers and project managers, collaborate intensively on software projects." That's the modern day hackathon.
Today's social, mobile, data-driven hackathons are where embryonic ideas hatch into working prototypes. A quicker way to get home delivery. The shortest path to work. Better, more efficient email. Web and mobile app ideas that may have only existed as an Evernote jotting are brought to life here. "Hackathons are where your crazy idea becomes reality," writes Medium's Alex Kern in his beginner's guide.
And a few of these projects go beyond prototype to hit pay dirt. Most famously, GroupMe, an app that simplified text messaging multiple users simultaneously, went from TechCrunch hackathon concept all the way to acquisition by Skype for $85 million.
I've been covering what's now become the nation's largest challenge-based hackathon here in San Francisco, since its beginnings. This year's Accelerate Hackathon was the opening act to San Francisco's DeveloperWeek Conference and Festival.
Whereas the traditional hackathon, as defined by techopedia, is for each developer to be have the ability and freedom to work on whatever he/she wants, challenge-based hacks have teams accept pre-determined, crowdsourced and sponsor-created objectives.
That distinction gives Accelerate a diverse mix of over 50 sponsors. Big hitters like HP, SAP, IBM, Microsoft and Autodesk sit side by side with ambitious start-ups like Mojio (auto intelligence), Avalara (sales taxes made easier), Slice (simplified management of online shopping), virool (native video advertising), and emerging technologies like Sinch (scalable voice and messaging for apps) and Bitcasa (developer plug & play storage solutions).
Promising, and living up to a sizable event with 550 developers, 100 teams, and several dozen mentors, led Samsung to deploy a video team to attend from South Korea. By the afternoon of day two, one-hundred teams and their projects were narrowed down to the most promising and fully developed top ten.
THE NEXT BIG IDEAS
I was privileged to serve on the six-person team of final judges for the final round, and this year's winners proved a promising bunch.
Our third place title went an ambitious group challenged by SAP to "strengthen renters' rights by connecting renters with the City of San Francisco." This hometown favorite got cheers from an eager audience who have personal experience with greedy landlords seeking to rid them of legacy rent-controlled lease agreements.
San Francisco tenant laws allow landlords to take advantage of the country's highest property values by emptying buildings and selling them off. Landlords need to offer tenants a relocation fee, and often-disenfranchised residents don't necessarily know what's fair, and what relocation will mean to them. This team's "No Place Like Home" app combines up-to-date comps, paired with seasoned expertise to give tenants negotiating and planning power.
Two high schoolers made up the second place team. Borne from the need for a simplified and quicker way to search information for research, their "Dragonfly" search engine delivers results in immediately meaningful ways. Facts are categorized separately from quotes, images, or mentions, for example.
The user interface is clean, bold, drag and drop customizable, and features only search results stripped of unnecessary and unfocused content. For a two-day hack, the prototype was functional and clear, and alternate applications and customizations appear easily attainable.
Built on HP's IDOL OnDemand web service APIs, and the HP Helion Development platform, the "FPEG" product delivered image compression hack no one else has delivered. Maintaining higher resolution in the facial region, but compressing the remainder of an image, FPEG yields smaller file sizes with enhanced clarity.
"I thought FPEG kicked ass," said fellow judge and Microsoft Program Manager, Gareth Jones. Indeed, it does, because it's licensing potential is immediate, and breadth of use, abundant.