Dharan: There ain’t no ‘hacks’ at hackathons

Special to Western News

Hackathons are marathons for nerds.

Unlike marathons, however, hackathons are weekend-long team events in which groups of programmers and developers collaboratively invent unique solutions to complicated problems. At the end of the weekend, judges review each team’s work and choose a winner – be it a new strategy for assembling the human genome or a new automatic-flush algorithm for urinals.

On the last weekend of November, I participated in Hack Western. As a third-year Bioinformatics major, I’m passionate about computers, but I still had my doubts about whether or not I would fit in and enjoy the hackathon experience. But these doubts were soon laid to rest. After being accepted into the competition, I formed a team with Alaa Darwech, another Bioinformatics student, and Skeni Patel and Andy Lac, both Computer Science students.

The four of us quickly discovered forming a team is easy, but coming up with a unique idea is brain-bleeding work. We brainstormed everything from anti-theft laptop software, to self-parking cars, to motion detectors for exercise equipment. As a budding bioinformatician, I wanted to introduce some aspect of biology into our hackathon project. Ultimately, we decided on something straightforward: to create a computer program that interprets brainwave readings and tells users what television shows to watch.

To make our idea a reality, we used a commercially available device called Muse, which is a fancy headband that measures brain activity. The device is marketed as a meditation aid, but it is also a mainstay on the hackathon circuit. We arrived at Hack Western with one of these high-tech headbands in hand. When the gun went off, we began the 48-hour race to create something original with it.

We spent the first few hours musing about Muse: How does it work and what software and programming languages are best suited for milking and manipulating its brainwave data?

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Admittedly, this involved a lot of trial and error and a significant number of Google searches. But once we wrapped our heads around the headband, our team’s diverse skillset shone through and we started building our project.

The hackathon stereotypes held true.

We went for two days with little sleep, lots of coffee and rarely took our eyes off computer screens. We were far-from-perfect programmers or rock-star biologists, but we used our abilities effectively. Alaa and I applied our bioinformatics background into interpreting the biology behind Muse’s brain activity data, whereas Skeni and Andy focused on building a functioning computer program. The hackathon also included various experts who mentored the teams (including ours), steering them in right direction if they were in a jam.

After two days – and only five hours of sleep – we built a program that could interpret Muse-generated brainwave readings, assign an emotion and then select an appropriate TV show for that emotion. For example, if the brainwave readings showed a person was happy, the program generated a list of television shows that fell into the action, comedy and romantic-drama genres.

We didn’t win, but we were proud of our product and learned a lot about brains and the benefits of sleep.

Hack Western taught me that teamwork, effective communication and creativity are often more important than being the best programmer or engineer. Most importantly, I learned spending two days stuck in a stuffy room with a bunch of science-obsessed undergrads is way more fun than it sounds. At the end of it all, I was exhausted and in desperate need of a shower and a salad.

I can’t wait until my next hackathon. Maybe I’ll see you there.

 Neeraja Murali Dharan is a third-year undergraduate science student specializing in bioinformatics at Western University. She is an alumna of the Ontario Baden-Wurttemberg Summer Research Program. This essay is the product of a science-writing internship with David Smith in Biology.