Yahoo! Hack Week opens doors for technological creativity

If you’ve strayed anywhere near the College of Computing this week, odds are, things have looked a bit more purple than usual. All week, Yahoo! and the Tech chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) have been hosting their annual Hack Week, an extension of Yahoo!’s annual University Hack Day programming contest.

The week’s main attraction, the 24-hour programming contest, begins Friday, March 12. Participants—either individuals or teams—get together to see who can throw together the best application—or “hack”—before the contest ends midday Saturday.

The reasons behind the week are a mixture of industry and university relations and professional education. Students get a chance to learn about a number of different web technologies from industry experts from Yahoo!, and Yahoo! gets the chance to work with young programmers and possibly recruit. Students also get a chance to learn about how professional software development works in the real world and, specifically, what work at Yahoo! is like.

The event kicked off Thursday, March 4 with a “Intro to Hack” event, where potential participants could learn more about how the event works.

Hack Week itself began with a kick-off event on Tuesday, March 9. Engineers from Yahoo!— armed with purple wizard hats and video-game-themed t-shirts—came and explained how the competition worked and showed off past winners’ hacks.

Last year’s winner—Roger Pincombe, fourth-year CS—showed off his hack, a program called DialPrice. In a nutshell, the idea behind Pincombe’s program is that users can find a product in a store, call a phone number, dial the products UPC code, and be told the prices of the same product at nearby stores and on popular online vendors. This way, they can see whether they’re getting a good deal at their current location, or if they can get it much cheaper off the web.

Hacks run the gamut of every kind of application imaginable. Some go the route of data visualization (like a site that allowed users to sort through a database of politician’s speeches by a hot-button issue), to techie politics (a search engine that pointed out poor web design by only showing websites that pass a gauntlet of tests), to games (a Google Earth/Pacman mashup), to just plain new ideas (a hack that lets you see where other visitors to a website spend the most time reading a page).

Above all, the event’s presenters stress that it’s not the complexity or technical correctness that make a great hack, so much as it is having a great idea to back it up.

A statement on the Hack U , said, “Be offbeat. Show your style. Let your freak flag fly, if you’ve got one. Most of all, engage your audience with your sense of humor and the clear perception that you are thrilled to be up there showing your stuff.“

Prizes go to the top three hacks at each university, and each local winner moves on to another round. This year, first prize for the local rounds is a netbook for each team member for up to four members. Second and third prize are, respectively, high-end headphones and gift certificates to Think Geek, a web vendor known for its wide selection of geeky swag.

The programming contest will kick off at 1 p.m. Friday and last until 1p.m. Saturday. Though they are allowed to plan as much as possible, participants are forbidden from writing code for their project until the event begins. Yahoo! engineers will be available throughout the contest to provide assistance with writing and debugging the hacks.

Other smaller events leading to the coding contest were spread throughout the week, mostly accompanied by a storm of giveaways, free t-shirts and free food.

Wednesday, the main event was a lunch discussion of open source development. Open source software—software that allows users to build off of it without having to fret over copyrights and patents—is a popular topic in computing and students got to see how some web tools are making open-source development possible.

Afterwords, Yahoo! and the ACM hosted several informal tech talks on how to use a half-dozen different web technologies. The day ended with a talk on Javascript by Douglas Crockford, the inventor of JSON.

Thursday had more tech talks, keynoted by a talk on Hadoop (a system that allows users to maintain large distributed applications) and another by a talk on design.

On campus, the ACM hosts events that often reach outside of the College of Computing. The organization is broken into a collection of special interest groups, or SIGs, and Tech’s largest annual LAN party, GT Gamefest, is hosted by the ACM’s SIG GAME.

The ACM is also responsible for bringing a collection of big names to campus every year, including tech talks by companies like Microsoft, Google and Amazon, as well as individuals like Bjarne Stroustrup, the inventor of C++,.

Students interested in participating in future Hack Days can learn about the event at Students interested in the ACM can learn more about the or more about the at their respective sites.