170 students from 21 universities gather for JHacks hackathon

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By Jacob Schaperow, editor-in-chief, @jschap1

About 170 students took a day off from homework to endure a 19.5 hour-long computer coding marathon in the Maryland Hillel multipurpose room. Jacob Schaperow/Mitzpeh.

About 170 students took a day off from homework to endure a 19.5 hour-long computer coding marathon in the Maryland Hillel multipurpose room. Jacob Schaperow/Mitzpeh

Computer science and technology group JHacks hosted a “weekend of innovation” Feb. 12-14, inviting students from around the country to participate in a hackathon. Only Jewish themed in the sense that it was purposely not held on a Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, the hackathon lasted nearly 20 hours, with participants producing a wide variety of computer science projects by judging time Sunday evening.

Twenty teams from universities ranging from Arizona State to Carnegie Mellon attended the coding event. JHacks, the student group behind the hackathon, formed last year for the purpose of planning and putting on a shomer Shabbat hackathon. The hackathon began at 8:30 p.m. Saturday and continued until 4 p.m. Sunday.

The top three projects from among the 20 participating teams included a flight ticketing app, a cybersecurity client, and a group-scheduling app designed to help Jews find 10 people for a minyan, or prayer quorum.

For many participants, JHacks was their first hackathon.

“People in computer science on college campuses in general have the ability to compete in hackathons,” JHacks President Akiva Futter said. “It’s a very good way for people in the tech community to come together. The problem is that they’re predominantly on Shabbat, and that precludes a lot of Jewish students from competing.”

What is “hacking”?

A hackathon is a computer-programming marathon. There is no illicit breaking into computer systems. Rather, participants are hacking in the “tinkering” sense of the word, working together to develop a product that solves some sort of problem.

Hackathons occasionally have themes. Within the past year, this university has hosted Bitcamp, a non-themed 36-hour hackathon, and Technica, an all-women hackathon. JHacks did not restrict participants nor variety of projects.

“There is nothing inherently Jewish about the hackathon itself,” Futter, a senior computer science major, said. “It is supposed to be a regular hackathon like any other hackathon is. We just moved the date.”

The projects

Junior Jesse Schloss, a member of the Cornell University JHacks team, worked on a software application that allows university administrations to schedule finals for classes with the least amount of scheduling conflicts. A key point of the app is the ability to take into account students’ preferences for exam times.

“The idea is [administrations] would poll students on their preferences, store that information, and then they could plug [possible exam times] plus students’ preferences into this algorithm and it would spit out an ideal finals schedule,” Schloss, a computer science major, said. “Or a least bad finals schedule. Because finals are going to be bad no matter what.”

One of two teams from MIT worked on an application designed to help people buy groceries on a budget. Aside from this university, MIT brought the largest delegation to the hackathon.

Sophomore Leah Slaten, junior Zoë Rothstein, and freshman Rochel Levy flew in from MIT to participate in JHacks. Their goal was to combine a nutrition-tracking app with a grocery shopping app to help people shop healthy on a budget.

“What we’re trying to do is figure out a way for people to optimize their nutrition while also minimizing costs,” Slaten, a sophomore computer science major, said, adding that the app or website would be useful college students, people who are on a budget and people in developing countries.

Akash Magoon and Ephraim Rothschild, whose project “Intelliflight” won the hackathon’s first place spot, are sophomore computer science and math double majors at this university. They developed a data-processing app to determine the best airline to book tickets from based on historical averages of flight arrival and departure times. They found, for example, that Delta Airlines flights leaving from Washington, D.C. were on average nearly 40 minutes more delayed than some of their rival airlines.

Rothschild said that JHacks is the second hackathon he has participated in. It was Magoon’s first, though he has attended other hackathons in a non-participatory role, as a sponsor. Magoon and Rothschild are business partners at Venture Storm, which is a platform that connects entrepreneurs and software developers.

Contest and judging

Panels of three judges evaluated the projects based on a grading rubric considering the project’s functionality, innovation, impact, complexity, scalability, and ease of use. The top three teams presented their projects in front of the entire hackathon.

JHacks featured three “corporate challenges” put forward by sponsors Walmart Technology, Cipher Tech Solutions and BookHolders. Walmart requested that participants in its challenge use the Walmart Open API in their projects.

API stands for “application program interface,” a set of specific protocols, routines and tools for developing software. The Walmart API is designed to integrate well with the Walmart website, whereas the API BookHolders uses, ClassData, is made to extract information about schools’ textbook requirements.

Walmart offered a “Walmart prize pack,” in addition to a tablet and a Bluetooth speaker. The team that won the BookHolders challenge got a micro-controller and Cipher Tech Solutions offered remote controlled BB-8 droids and Amazon gift cards for the team that designed the best application pertaining to digital forensics.

Winners

The winning teams and their prizes:

First place – drones. “Intelliflight” by Ephraim Rothschild and Akash Magoon

Second place – Raspberry Pi microcontrollers. “Proactive Endpoint” by Max Cohen and Omer Yampel.

Third place – Google swag bags. “Minyan Maker” by Josh Fried, Aliza Hochsztein, Suri Bandler, Meir Hirsch and Doni Schwartz.

Walmart Challenge – Shop with Kindness, Team Dialer, Package Tracker

BookHolders Challenge – the Cornell University team.

Cipher Tech Solutions Challenge – team Proactive Endpoint and team Noah, Nathan, Joel and Ezra.

Future hacking events

JHacks plans to put on another hackathon next year with a more specific focus.

“The direction we want to take it in is trying to build off the concept of Tikun Olam, rebuilding the world,” Futter said. “We want to dedicate ourselves to being a problem-solving hackathon. That we commit ourselves to two or three problems every year, and try to see if we can come up with technological solutions to these problems.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled one of the competitor’s names. It has been corrected.

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