An Awesome Hackathon Project

I was a volunteer judge at a local Hackathon lalst weekend. With 200 some projects and more than 500 participants (not counting judges and staff, it was huge—probably too big to really work well.

I have to say that I’m not a big fan of the hackathon concept. I’m more of a deliberative designer. Aside from the blatant age-ism in the “24 hours straight” format, this just isn’t the way to really solve problems, in my opinion.

Hackathons are good for one thing for sure: they are “zones of permission” (a la Kennedy), not only inviting, but insistently demanding free wheeling ideas. And no one is terribly worried by the prospect that most of the projects will be duds. Have fun, try something out, practice the craft of making stuff.

With so many projects, most of which I didn’t see in action, I won’t attempt to comment on the overall field. As a judge, I was struck by the fact that many of the projects suffered from a poor understanding of the problem they claimed to address. (I was particularly unimpressed by several problems supposedly aimed to help “farmers”, which revealed a deep and almost insulting ignorance of what actual farmers do and know.)

Of course, the other main observation is that the “solutions” all followed the path of least resistance, employing popular software interfaces and available hardware. Google maps and Arduino and so on are the hammers we have, so everyone looked for problems that could be hit like a “nail”.   Sigh.  (And there were plenty of Inappropriate Touch Screen interfaces, needless to say.)

These are, of course, “features” not bugs of the Hackathon, which is based on the notion that “ousiders”, unburdened by previous knowledge of the problem, and employing ubiquitous, general purpose tools, can radially reinvent, disrupt, and so on. In 24 hours.

And don’t get me started about the “our project will be so cool, we’ll be hired by Google on the spot” fantasy. This is totally the wrong thing to be thinking about when you are trying to do creative design. For goodness sak, design for the users, not to please your corporate overlords!

Anyway, here’s one project that (a) is awesomely cool and (b) actually works amazingly well, considering. Very nice work!

Sorting Hat by Neel Mouleeswaran, Chamila Amithirigala, and Vignesh Vishwanathan.


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