(Photo by Brady Dale)
Starting on the sort of cold, rainy morning where it’s hard to imagine anyone leaving the house, Bushwick’s first hackathon, HackBushwick, opened at 11 a.m. inside Livestream Public in Bushwick this past Saturday. (We heard some people on the floor quibbling about whether it was “technically” Bushwick or East Williamsburg — we say Bushwick.) Attendees filtered into the back while organizers waited for a critical mass to form in order to start the event.
It was a very short hackathon. Just six hours, but maybe that was part of the appeal.
Many people told us, one way or another, that it had been their first hackathon, and maybe the light commitment got them there. The organizing team told us they were surprised by the number of people who actually turned up. The RSVPs had closed at 150 people, according to the organizers. Once things were underway, it seemed like there were about 65 there. It definitely maxed out the available work space on Livestream’s first floor.
— HackBushwick (@hackbushwick) December 6, 2014
The hackathon winner of cash and prizes was a three-person team, Optimus Prime, that made the Bushwick BBS — a site that took online photos tagged with #Bushwick, converted them to ASCII text and posted them.
Second place went to a two-person team, Bushwick Info Kiosk, which would use face recognition to turn on a microphone at public kiosks so users could ask questions about what’s in the neighborhood.
The audience favorite went to Oh Hey, Bushwick, a missed connections website that marks not-quite-encounters on a map of the neighborhood. It also makes a user experience leap over Craigslist: in order to message someone who posted something, the poster can put some kind of verification to make sure it’s really the right person. The site is live. We’re following up with its makers, who intend to keep it going.
We took detailed notes. Pretend this is a live blog.
The main auditorium area had been completely full as the three organizers welcomed the participants, about a half-hour behind schedule. Participants had already started circulating and talking before the official welcome, and it seemed like a lot of the teams had already been formed, or arrived there formed.
A wide array of people have turned out. There’s a contingent from General Assembly on one team. A small group of high schoolers. We ran into people who worked for companies like Meetup, Etsy and The Atavist. Several people we met were still in the early days of learning to code, though there were plenty of veterans.
— Technically Brooklyn (@TechnicallyBK) December 6, 2014
The challenge of hackathons is always that starting part. It’s strange that in the world of hackathons, where it’s all about working with the digital, that there’s nothing digital to help people find a team. Team formation at this event was 100 percent done through circulation around the room. Event organizer Robin Camille Davis said that because they were slightly behind, they decided not to burn time asking potential team leaders to pitch their concepts to the room, since it seemed like teams had already started to form.
Every time we go to a hackathon it always seems like a few people drop out early due to the awkwardness of connecting with others or introducing themselves to pods of strangers. We definitely spotted at least one go because she couldn’t find a team. It’s surprising that no one has made a digital matchmaking system for hackathons yet. Maybe a Tinder for hackathons, where participants can post a profile of skills and interests and teams can post project concepts and what they are looking for.
Someone should hack that up at a hackathon.
Lots of post-it notes are up on walls now that the teams have found their spots and we can see lines of code on computer screens.
The organizing team, Davis, Nate Graves and Dan McGrath, told us that they came together at a meetup that Davis had founded, Code Drink Talk Bushwick. “It’s essentially just meeting other tech people over drinks,” Davis told us. “And it’s grown to over 250 members. Nate and Dan became regulars and they had the idea to make a hackathon.”
The meetup has been going for a year-and-a-half. Davis founded it when she moved here. There weren’t really tech-related meetups in Meetup when she arrived, she said, though her group proved that there were a lot of people there working the in the tech scene.
“So our first bummer,” Davis told us, “the pizza is M.I.A.”
As to whether or not it was ultimately going to come, she said, “it’s unclear.” We started to hear noises around the room around this time wondering where the pizza had gone to. With the rain coming down hard outside, fending for oneself, food-wise, was difficult. The suspense didn’t last that long. Within 20 minutes the Norbert’s Pizza had shown up. Cheese slices for miles.
If you wonder if tech company ping-pong tables ever actually get used, a few people put the one in Livestream to use as the day hit the midway point.
Here are the results of our post-pizza interviews:
“Oh Hey, Bushwick” is going to be a missed connections site. The team behind it is four devs and a designer, the main tie between them being a General Assembly class they had in common (one of them was an instructor). “I thought it would be romantic,” Jennifer Spriggs said of the site. Jackie Quartner said, “It’s more stalkerish, because it’s location based, but it’s less sketchy, because it’s not on Craigslist.”
Mike Caprio, Simon Lawrence and Madelena Mak were the last team to get started, but at a bit past the midway point they were at work on a distinctly quirky project. “We’re taking social APIs and downgrading them to text,” Williamsburg’s Caprio told us. They are pulling photos tagged #Bushwick on Instagram and Twitter and translating them to ASCII text using a Python library called Pillow 2.1.0.
Bushwick’s Mak said, “It’s the hippest Bushwick website of 1985.” They would ultimately call it Bushwick BBS and it would win the day, taking home the cash prize and the bar tab.
We spent most of the day at the same table as Flatbush’s Gerard O’Neill, pictured above, who’s working on a website to help people organize protests. “Secretly — not necessarily anonymously,” he said. It would be a sort of invite-only site. He didn’t submit it to the demo round.
O’Neill had his mentee with him, Maurice, a 9th grader from Ocean Hill. Maurice was working on a site to gamify recycling, in hopes of getting more people to do it. Listening to their repartee throughout the day was one of the highlights.
— John Exley (@JohnExley) December 6, 2014
One team is using voice recognition to create an app for helping visitors find things they would like in Buswhick. I just heard him ask his microphone, “Show me an Italian restaurant in Bushwick.”
As it started to move toward the final hour, we checked in with a few of the teams. Jennifer Moran of Taggr told us that they were working on a website for keeping track of graffiti tagged to walls. It’s a pre-curated site to start. Users can use it to find famous walls of graffiti, post photos to the site (to track how the walls change over time) and offer curation.
She said they had originally thought to make it mobile, but they had to go with a website to start. “Due to time, we had to shave down to what the essential elements were. And that was map and photo,” she said.
Levan Toturgul described his team’s project, Bushwhere, saying, “It’s like a scavenger hunt app for graffiti art in Bushwick.” Graffiti was a big theme. Not a huge surprise when the rules said it had to be Bushwick related. The iOS app uses a commercial piece of software called Moodstocks that allows it to verify that the user has found the piece of graffiti in question. Toturgul said that they had originally thought about making it a QR-based approach with more kinds of items to look for, but then a teammate suggested that they focus it in on street art, to make it more Bushwick.
There was a lot of street art inside the Livestream workspace that they used to verify that the image recognition system worked.
Teams are forming up in the main room. The demos aren’t quite started. A team is finalizing their presentation plan behind me as they wait to go up. Davis just came onto the stage to say that every team gets two minutes to present.
— Fikriyyah George (@MrsSuperHarbor) December 6, 2014
— Mike Caprio (@mik3cap) December 7, 2014
Teams presented. We listed the winners up top. After party at Arrogant Swine. We sat with the winning team, Optimus Prime, who cooked up an idea for an app based on a favorite cooking show that could revolutionize cooking at home. If they pursue it.