Interview: Hack Cambridge 2017

Image credit: Hack Cambridge via Facebook

What is a hackathon?

A hackathon is basically a combination of an event and a marathon. Over the course of twenty-four hours a person or a team will make something, either software or hardware. They start with nothing at the beginning of the event and at the end of twenty-four hours they’ve made something. It’s just that tight concentration of creativity and inventiveness that makes them so cool.

So is it not like hacking in films?

No, it’s not like that. Hacking has gotten a bad name by the media. Hacking as we understand it is more using a computer enthusiastically, creating stuff rapidly, nothing to do with breaking into things, we prefer to use the term cracking for that. But there is that negative connotation, which makes it difficult to pitch. In fact, when we are sending visa invitations to people, because some people require visa invitations, we’ll say it’s an exclusive workshop, we’ll try not to use the word ‘hackathon’ to talk to the government.

What sort of projects do people work on?

It’s completely open, work on whatever you want. Last year we had all sorts of crazy hacks created. For example last year one of the big winners was a game that helped teach kids a particular computer science concept, or somebody used a brain scanner to determine how interested people were when they were reading a document.

How many people wanted to get involved?

In total we got about 900 applications, so we were oversubscribed by about three times.

How much interest was there from girls?

Interest in girls is significantly lower, in terms of applications. I’d say maybe 80:20 in terms of applications. In terms of people we’ve sent invitations to, it’s looking more like 35:65. So while not as good as it could be, we’re making progress. It’s definitely an improvement from last year.

Why do you think that there is a limit of girls getting into coding?

There are lots of reasons that people might see, I don’t think any single one of them is correct, it’s probably a combination of things. I think there’s definitely an expectation set in high school, and things just propagate from high school. Something’s definitely happening earlier on that’s contributing to this.

Do you think events like this could play a role?

I think challenges like this certainly can help. Something we’re trying to do in general is to make it more friendly to novices because we want this to be an environment where people can learn, we want this to be an environment where people feel safe to experiment and meet new and interesting people.

Do you think it’s important for people to get into coding who wouldn’t typically learn it?

Yeah, you hear that sentiment a lot. I agree with it to an extent. I think everybody should learn physics or English to some extent – everybody should learn coding to some extent as one of those key skills. I think events like these certainly help. But for them to be more open to novices, there needs to be more of them, they need to be more frequent as well, only then can they start being pretty valuable. Opening these things up to under eighteens is something that people would love to do but it’s really difficult because of the legal requirements to actually let them in. Making that easier would also probably be a way of breaking down some of those barriers.

How is the Hackathon judged if there’s such variety?

First I want to say that we try to push down the weight of the prizes, not make them a big deal. So we’ve got nice prizes but nothing that will make people super competitive. Currently we’ve set it up so that the sponsors send mentors, industry professionals who help out hackers who are having problems, but some of them will also be judging the Hackathon. This year we’ve got a piece of software to help us judge, it’s called Gavel and it’s made by the people at Hack MIT: it tells you to go to this table and judge this person, then it’ll say go to another table and judge another person, then it will ask you which one you thought was better. It keeps on doing that and eventually it comes up with an answer, it’ll spit out the top six for us. Then we’ll do proper presentations up on the stage and then a panel of four or five judges will decide the overall winners.

What are you most worried about for tomorrow?

Well last year we had a catastrophic issue with our wifi, properly catastrophic – it basically didn’t work. You can’t test a thousand devices without having a thousand devices in the room! We’re pretty confident it’s not going to happen this year, but it’s something we’ve got to keep our eye on. We’ve got three priorities: first it’s power, second it’s wifi, then it’s food. Wifi is more important than food!

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