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Hackathon aims to be largest in country

By Giacomo Bologna, Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 24, 2013

If all goes according to plan, students from across the nation will be flocking to Palmer Commons for the largest college hackathon in the country next weekend.

Engineering junior David Fontenot, one of the students heading the inaugural MHacks Hackathon, said the program aims to draw 500 students to the 36-hour programming competition.

In addition to aspiring to be the biggest hackathon in the nation, Fontenot said he hopes MHacks will also bring exposure to new technology and programming languages that are evolving so rapidly that they haven’t begun to be taught at the University.

“Technology is changing so fast and a lot of the stuff you learn in the classroom could be a few years behind,” he said. “What hackathons allow you to do is they allow you to try out a tool you would never use in class.”

The competition offers $5,000 in prizes with a $1,500 cash prize for first place.

Students will arrive Friday evening and the competition will begin at midnight and end Sunday morning.

“(On Sunday morning) we’re going to have an expo similar to, like, a science fair where we’re inviting the public in,” Fontenot said. “You’re going to pretty much be demoing your hacks to anyone who’s interested.”

MHacks has already garnered tens of thousands of dollars in donations from will a plurality of that money going to spend on transportation costs like bussing students to the event. Aside from tech companies, the event has even received a large donation of drinks from Red Bull.

The hackathon will be financed by donations from several sponsors, including Mail Chimp, venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, Groupon and others.

Despite its sizeable budget, MHacks has allocated no money for lodging. But Fontenot said that’s deliberate.

“At a hackathon, you usually take, like, a 3-hour nap or something in the middle, but you don’t get a full night’s sleep,” he said. Nonetheless, there will be “designated nap rooms” with neck pillows, Fontenot added.

At the end of the competition, Fontenot said the best app isn’t necessarily the most profitable app, but the most usable. Teams cheating by teams is a possibility, but preparing an app before the competition could do little to help a team’s cause.

“(Cheating) has happened before and it’s somewhat hard to detect,” he said. “I honestly think that the most innovation comes in this kind of setting where you’re completely under pressure.”

He continued by saying the limited time forces apps to be fairly basic, but these form the foundation for later development.

“A lot of the most successful apps … started off really, really simple,” he said.

Last weekend, programmers from the University traveled to the University of Pennsylvania for PennApps, which Fontenot said is the nation’s premier college hackathon. Fontenot said MHacks intends to overtake PennApps in terms of prestige and student involvement.

440 students participated in PennApps and MHacks already has about 450 students signed up, Fontenot said still shy of the 500-student goal.

Students interested in signing up for MHacks can sign up at the Hackathon’s eventbrite. The event is free.

Correction Appended: A previous version of this story misstated the budget and incorrectly said that the Red Bull was purchased.