Last month, over 130 hackers descended on Nottingham’s iconic Council House for the return of Hack24 — a hackathon that saw 40 teams compete in a range of digital challenges for fun, kudos, and prizes.
A watershed event for Nottingham
The organisers, Tech Nottingham, building on last year’s inaugural event, promised a bigger, better weekend for 2016. Expectations were exceeded; from the brilliant venue and catering, to the awesome volunteers. They created a welcoming venue which brought together teams from startups, agencies, and universities. Somewhere to showcase and celebrate the city’s maturing tech industry by building creative hacks and new connections.
JH runs and hosts several local meetups, so we deeply understand the impact Hack24 has on nurturing Nottingham’s talent. We supported the event for a second year by providing plush t-shirts and hoodies for the staff and attendees. We also grabbed a few tickets and sent a team to test their mettle in the noon-to-noon competition.
Our cunning plan
A week before the event, Jodi Warren, Will Broderick, and I assembled to review the challenges and solve the biggest problem we’d face: naming ourselves. Like any pub quiz or bowling team, puns reign supreme. After eliminating 30 options, including gems such as ‘Basement Ajaxx’, ‘Hack ‘n’ Slash’, ‘54 65 61 6D’, and ‘IDEs of March’, we chose ‘Funtime Exception’ — a nod to the tribulations of Java at uni.
From the eight challenges, two struck a chord. MHR wanted an innovative idea for illustrating organisations, while Blenheim Chalcot were looking for a creative way to handle authorisation. We jumped at the chance to play with visualisation and sensors respectively. As a team with skills skewed towards design and front-end, they also provided the best chance to create a compelling MVP in the limited time — something Jodi had learned at 2015’s hack.
As a klaxon launched the coding on Saturday, we had several clever, playful, and somewhat comical ideas shortlisted for Blenheim Chalcot’s challenge. After some sketching and API tests, we had leave some on the cutting room floor:
- “Quickstep”. Use a camera, gyro, and compass to measure walking gait; a biometric unique to each person. The fun twist is to provide walking patterns, like a march or a waltz, with the device screen providing AR footsteps to follow.
- “Handshake”. Use a gyro to record a secret handshake between friends. It provides a unique authorisation for them to make peer-to-peer payments.
- “Magpie”. Based on Kim’s Game where objects laid on a tray must be remembered. This can be combined with personal totems, or odd-one-out games, to create different authorisation methods.
- “Chronicle”. “Tell me about the time…” prompts the app, leading the users through a branching dialog tree that asks questions, via a conversational UI, about personal experiences. The answers build up like Mad Libs, turning the generic security questions, into a personal story. Authorisation asks “Remember the time when…?”.
Let me take a selfie
In the end, we settled on an idea that would accomplish three key factors: it solved the problem, it was achievable, and it would be fun to build and use. We called that idea“Potato Head”.
It embraces contemporary selfie culture to create a two-factor authorisation. First the user takes a selfie to provide a biometric key. Then they decorate it with props, creating a unique visual PIN from thousands of combinations, thus solving possible “selfie fraud”.
While I handled the design, Jodi produced the front-end components, and Will built a Rails app to handle the logic. We lost quite a bit of time to prototyping and sleeping, so Sunday morning was a mad dash to pull everything together by midday. Then followed video production, a two-hour sprint to film, edit, voiceover, encode, and upload a three minute clip.
Running out winners
As the judges began reviewing submissions, we breathed a sigh of relief and let our heart rates settle from the burst of work that had brought everything together. We were tired, but pleased that we’d given it a good shot, completing the 24 hours with a working project and a slick video.
But that exhaustion was wiped out as Blenheim Chalcot’s Mitul Sudra announced us as winners. Having seen the calibre of other winners, we were truly stunned as we climbed the stage to collect the generous prize of Sonos speakers. To top that off, our project was featured by Notts TV in news coverage of the event.
After a beer and some sleep, we were able to reflect on the surprise result. For other teams planning to compete next year, here’s what we learnt from the day:
- Form a multidisciplinary team. With a designer aboard, you have someone who can focus on solving the user problems, designing the interface, and making a nice video.
- Pick a fun idea. This was the biggest decision we made: laughing at silly selfies helped us push through, and humour is as valuable as innovation in the spirit of the hackathon.
- Get to MVP as early as possible, because at best you’ll have 10-14 quality hours of hacking. We had the selfie capture and decoration working by 3pm on Saturday.
- It’s not the time for that framework you’ve been waiting to try. We almost got derailed playing with movement and facial recognition instead of using an API or plugin.
- Write a script and shot list for your video. Combined with an iPhone and iMovie, you’ll be amazed at what you can produce in two hours. I’m excited to shoot more in the future.
Until next year…
Thank you Andrew and Emma Seward for providing Nottingham’s tech community with such a wonderful event. We learned so much, thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, and will be back next year. Until then we’ll be enduring Wait365.
(Post thumbnail by Andrew Acford)