Hack Dartmouth: Hackers In Hanover For 24 Hours

by Cristian Cano | 5/2/18 2:10am


What does computer hacking mean? Today it can mean anything from using a computer to gain unauthorized access to information to simply accessing someone’s online credentials without permission, like when strangers “hack” Facebook accounts left logged in on public computers.

Hackers are often depicted as technological geniuses whose rapid-fire coding skills allow them to crack even the most secure of firewalls. Think secret government agents who are racing against the clock to disable a ticking bomb, unlock a secure facility or discover the whereabouts of criminals in hiding.

Do hackers exist at Dartmouth? Yes, although maybe not quite how you’d expect. Instead of hijacking others’ computers, all one has to do to be a Dartmouth hacker is to participate in a hackathon.

On Apr. 14-15, Dartmouth hosted its fourth annual hackathon: HackDartmouth IV. What exactly is a hackathon? According to the event’s website, a hackathon is an event in which “hundreds of programmers get together to build something from scratch, be it a website, app, or some other product of their imagination.”

Admittedly, the hackathon definition of hacking is much looser than the popular one, as hackers create their own computer programs instead of taking over someone else’s. That doesn’t mean that these hackers’ work is any less important, however. Over the course of 24 hours, participants are tasked with envisioning and completing a computer program that will be judged based on set criteria, with the highest scorers winning prizes.

Emily Lin ’18, who has been involved with organizing HackDartmouth since its first year in 2015, was the director of sponsorship and marketing for HackDartmouth IV. She said that her main roles include spreading the word about the event and reaching out to potential sponsors, although this year she served more as a mentor to younger students who will run the event after she graduates.

When asked about how HackDartmouth has grown since her freshman year, Lin said that size has fluctuated each year. The first year was a moderate size, but then the second and third years were smaller. This year, the size increased again, with Lin citing an extra 70 to 100 participants beyond what was expected.

While the event’s growth has advantages, it also brings some unexpected challenges. For example, due to HackDartmouth IV’s especially high yield rate, the event’s organizers didn’t have enough gear like t-shirts to distribute to everyone.

“Throughout the years, we’ve had to learn how to coordinate better than before because the event itself has been getting bigger,” Lin said.

Lin also explained how HackDartmouth used to be supported by Major League Hacking, an official student hacking league that provides collegiate hackathons with hardware, workshops and other resources. However, this year HackDartmouth lost that support, and consequently the number of applicants fell from between 700 to 900 to only around 400.

According to Lin, this change was a result of Major League Hacking wanting to prioritize assisting new hackathons, while HackDartmouth has now had four years to become an established hackathon. Lin expressed how impressed she was, though, that HackDartmouth IV had a much higher retention rate despite a smaller applicant pool.

Participants come from all over the globe. Many participants come from other colleges — some from all the way from California — and HackDartmouth was able to provide some students with travel subsidies to make the journey more financially feasible. Lin shared that this year, there was even a participant who flew all the way from the United Kingdom.

Other than competing, students also come to the hackathon for a variety of other reasons. Some attend primarily to network with various company representatives. There are even participants who don’t want to stay awake for 24 hours but would rather just attend the various workshops on the itinerary.

“Some people I know go to hackathons just to attend the workshops,” Lin said. “Maybe you don’t want to stay up for 24 hours, but you do want to learn something new. I think that’s something really exciting.”

Teddy Ni ’19, a HackDartmouth IV participant, said that the event was his first major hackathon experience. He had previously participated in HackDay, a smaller-scale 12-hour event tailored to beginning programmers but still felt like he went into HackDartmouth IV not really knowing what to expect.

Ni and his teammates worked on a project called Plain Privacy, a Google Chrome extension that analyzes websites’ privacy policies and gives users the most important information. This allows users to have a better sense of how websites are using their data without having to sift through long policies with complicated jargon.

Ni talked about how his team managed to collaborate and finish their project in such a short time frame. He admitted that figuring out the most efficient way to work together was sometimes a struggle, but they managed to find a system that worked well. Usually, one person was actively coding while the others were thinking and planning.

While he and his teammates usually switched off between coding and planning, there was one member of their team that wasn’t a coder at all.

“One person on our team didn’t really know how to code,” Ni said. “He was just really strong at math, so he worked through algorithms and showed us how the math would work out. We would code that for him.”

Ni said that no one on his team had ever done a 24-hour hackathon before, so they weren’t entirely sure what to focus on. He admitted that they spent too much time working on eliminating bugs, but now he believes that during a hackathon, it’s more worthwhile to come up with a grand idea and fret less about the small details.

Plain Privacy won the Sponsored Google Prize, and Ni has hopes to continue polishing the code and eventually publish the project to the Chrome Extension Store.

Natalie Jung, the design resident at the Digital Arts, Leadership, & Innovation Lab, was one of HackDartmouth IV’s six judges. Due to her role in helping students develop a sense of design based on both visual and user experience standpoints, she was asked to judge projects specifically for the digital arts category.

Jung, who had never judged anything like a hackathon before, found the experience of going to each team’s table and learning about their projects rewarding. She said that several projects blew her away due to their originality, and she also appreciated the variety of perspectives that the groups exhibited.

“My first question was always, ‘What are your backgrounds? Who are you?’” Jung said. “It was really a mix of people. My first reaction was just, ‘Wow, this is such a great, interdisciplinary group.’”

When remembering projects that especially stood out to her, Jung praised students’ creativity. For example, she recalled one project named The Poetics of Space that combined poetry with 3D space.

Another project that Jung talked about, RGB Symphony, used the red, green and blue values of pixels in an image to produce music. The color values of each pixel were used to determine the pitch, octave and duration of each note, and then all of the notes were played back to create a melody. The project won the Digital Arts category.

“The very next day after judging, I came back and told everyone [in the DALI Lab] about the RGB Symphony,” Jung said. “It was such an interesting blend between music and … visual arts.”

Reflecting on the difference between the kinds of projects that her students work on in the DALI Lab and the projects that hackathon participants complete, Jung believed that the shorter time frame prevents students from holding back.

She said that a 10-week term is already quite a short timeframe for completing projects, but in just 24 hours students aren’t “running” but “flying.”

Jung, in her role as a judge, offered not just praise but also advice and constructive criticism. While she would have liked to see more visual clarity in students’ projects, she recognizes that students don’t always have enough time. Instead, she advises all students to always keep in mind a project’s target audience, platform and industry.

“I think if [HackDartmouth participants] went into the projects knowing exactly who their users are, and knowing what platform they’re going to work on, then they can achieve great things,” Jung said.

After hearing the perspectives of a HackDartmouth organizer, a participant and a judge, a common thread emerges: the importance of not being afraid to take risks and be creative. In a hackathon, hackers want to plant big ideas that might eventually grow into full-fledged products, or even mark the beginnings of a startup.

As long as the idea is there, there’s no need for perfection. The code can always be polished later.