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Tuesday September 2, 2014

#BKVenture: Invasion of the Hackathons

(l to r: Panelists Christopher Kennedy, Jonathan Askin and Peter Robinson. Photo by L. Keyson)

By Lauren Keyson

Brooklyn Venture Community meetup partnered with the NYU Poly Tech Incubator in DUMBO to bring together hackathon experts — both winners and organizers– to talk about the growing trend of hackathons and how they evolved. But the conversation drifted in another direction — how hackathons are no longer a playground for developers but are now big business.  While these competitions have been around for years, now that thousands of dollars are being poured into sponsoring, organizing and iterating hackathons, is this a case of jumping on a trend while the “getting” is good?

AngelHack produces hackathons around the world. Panelist Sabeen Ali said, “Our organization is quite possibly the largest hackathon in the world. In a matter of one year we have done at least 20 to 30 hackathons.” Ali’s company wants to support the community, including both technical and nontechnical companies. “We also believe that someone is going to come up with some amazing idea that will ultimately change the world.”

Charlie Oliver of Served Fresh Media organized last night’s event. She said hackathons are no longer restricted to technologists, but have become filled with non-techies wanting to solve world problems. She placed a great deal of emphasis on how hackathons are “sponsored up” with white-glove food and drink and accommodations. “Can an average person innovate?” she questioned. “I think they can contribute to innovation through hackathons. We’re all hacking something at some point.”

Challenge Post is a platform for running hackathons. Its tag line is “Solve challenges for fun and profit.” While its mission does have a financial component, it has worked with the city to run hackathons to solve programs. Last year they collaborated on a hackathon for a new web site. This year’s challenge is “Reinvent the Payphone,” re-configuring the city’s 11,000 payphones. Peter Robinson talked about Challenge Post’s work with NYC Big Apps, a competition to create apps for large data sets. One result was a tree census app that identified city trees by species and carbon offset. Challenge Post was also involved with Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative. They created health-based apps for children–including a nutrition game allowing kids to arrange their favorite foods–then smash them to see how many calories come from fat and other elements.

Panelist Jonathan Askin is a professor at Brooklyn Law School and teaches technology and Internet law. He got involved in hackathons after tiring of sitting on the sidelines, stepping in only at the end to help with legal issues. Along with his students, he started a monthly legal hackathon. It explores ways the law has not kept up with new technology and how technology can improve the legal process. “We hacked some legislation and created new platforms for legal document production and litigation and arbitration process,” he said. “Every revolution has required the input of lawyers, at least after the fact. We see hacking as a viable tool for technological and cultural events.”

Christopher Kennedy, founder of Status Chart, is a frequent winner at hackathons. He also mentors and organizes them. “I was a hacker on the 2011 StartupBus, which is a hackathon on a bus, and my career and life changed. It gave me a platform to launch off of.  I already had the vision, but I didn’t know where to go. On the StartupBus I instantly built up a network. Kennedy’s advice for people who want to attend hackathons? “Just show up.”

James Bruni, Bruni PR, the only panelist not creating or winning a hackathon, said there’s nothing new about hackathons. “But I think the latest twist might be the social entrepreneurship angle like HackSanitation and HackSandy, where developers and people gather together and solve problems like potable water and natural disasters — that’s really hot.”