Take It Back-athon - a hackathon for kicks and giggles

It all started when I attended my first public hackathon - VegasHack. Pawel and I went in saying "I think we should try to win red pants from the Betabrand sponsored category, but either way let's just have fun".

And so we created Fitendo, a web app that tracks your Fitbit steps and converts it into real progress through the video game Super Mario. It was the kind of idea what we'd never justify spending our free time on as Pawel and myself can be rather busy with other things. He's got two kids, and volunteers for numerous local community groups/events. I also volunteer for local communities, and generally keep busy.

In a lovely twist of events, we actually won the Betabrand category and requested our prizes be a pair of charming red velvet pants. I still wear them.

It was such a good first impression of hackathons, that I started attending more. And more. Even ones outside my own town of Las Vegas. But I noticed a trend developing that I intially shrugged off as a strange anomaly --

Commercial API's became the main story, with ideas being molded around them. Sponsors were starting to enforce which API's to use. Large corporations holding hackathons with crazy T&C's such as owning project IP. White dudes seemed to make up the majority of attendees. Limited clarity/distinction between startup/business focussed hackathons, and 'for fun' hackathons. Misleading information on hackathon websites. Excessive focus on project 'monetization' and 'investment potential'.

Almost every demo I witnessed adhered to the following recipe:

  1. Social media login, such as Facebook or Twitter oAuth.
  2. App then hits an API or two for data
  3. ???
  4. Profit

I mean, don't get me wrong - startups and business stuff is cool. There are events specifically for this like Start Up Weekend and Launch Up. But the list of hackathons thrown purely for having fun, and achieving the impossible or equally preposterous, is shrinking, and has been no doubt since even before I even started attending these things.

Full time developers spend all day programming to make someone else money. They need to make said money for their boss, or they're out of a job. Some are moonlighting to change this, by slowly working towards being their own boss, with their own staff of developers to work for them. That's great. But surely there are those who want to code for fun to remind themselves why they got into computer science in the first place, right?

Pawel and I are such people. We talked about throwing a 'Stop Down' (geddit?) hackathon for quite some time. Recently we finally bit the bullet and yesterday we successfully ran our first 'Take it Back-athon'. We changed the name, because we didn't want to be mistaken for being opposed to the startup scene. Instead, we're trying to 'take back' the original hackathon magic. When OpenBSD started running hackathons in 1999, they were among the first to do so. And their events rapidly improved the development of their OS. Community give back is awesome. No $25k prizes being given out there. Similarly, the demoscene dating back to early PC usage threw demo parties, for the developers, no one else. It was about who could pull off amazing feats, and the camaraderie involved in doing so.

It turns out other people felt the same way as us. The Las Vegas Review Journal profiled the event, which was really encouraging.

We had a very healthy sign up for the first Take It Back-athon. And we had an absolute blast on the day. There were no judges, the audience voted for winners via sms poll.

The final list of projects:

'Noob.js' by Austin Hackett
'A javascript adventure through the dark side of hollywood'.
Austin rocks up first thing in the morning and admits he's pretty new to programming. What a star. He made an awesome text and image based adventure through Hollywood. Austin won second place overall.

'Luchadores' by Reuben Burda and Tyson Anderson
'Data Visualization with Wrestling Masks'
luchadores This was so ridiculous in the best way. Tyson and Reuben had never met before prior to the hackathon. They took restaurant data from a number of suburbs in Las Vegas, and generated different wrestling mask designs based on the amount of results, and the aggregrated ratings of the restaurants found. They won first place overall.

'Such Backathon' by Daniel Harden and Max Keener
'Wow'
Dan and Max were going for the big one. They wanted the "most gratuitous use of API's' award. That prize was a giant plush duck. They were hardcore, and completely in over their heads in the best possible way. They combined API's from Twilio, Instagram, TMDB, Bitcoin exchange, and Doge coin exchange to create a memorable doge designed page that tries to guess who you are on the internet. Had to be seen to be believed. Needless to say, that won that award real good. They also won the 'least likely to be successful on kickstarter' prize.

'Suckbot' by Nate Bryant
'Suckbot is an Arduino based line follower robot with a suction fan that creates additional downforce and traction.'
Nate brought in an entire garage worth of tools and useful doodads to work on his robot in progress, the suckbot. It's a robot that can drive itself on a track using infrared vision, with a fan that ensures tight corner handling by 'sucking' the road. Freaking awesome, and he helped everyone else out with tools for their own projects.

'Web-a-Sketch' by Shawn Looker, Ryan Quinn, John Harris, and Steve Lolito
'Putting the internet where it belongs.'
I'll admit it, these dudes were ambitious. They even brought in Shawn Looker's son for his expert knowledge of Lego. Essentially, they hooked up an etch-a-sketch to some servos and were driving it with a Beaglebone. Impressive stuff. John then wrote some software that will take a screenshot of a webpage and convert it into a simple binary style image that the etch-a-sketch can parse and replicate. They had some 5V power issues with the Beaglebone and so didn't get to finish, but solid job for a one day hackathon, guys! They won third place overall.

'Pedalino 1.0' by Lauren Atchley
'An arduino guitar pedal!'
Let me just say that Lauren is a general resident badass. She brings in an Arduino and a completely blank guitar pedal etched circuit all ready for soldering. She had soldered only once before. I turn my back for an hour or two and when I come back she's got dozens of little components all neatly soldered onto the board. Wow. She's got some technical issues to sort out before it will work 100%, but hats off lady - it takes patience and fine motor control in those fingers to do what you did.

Cool turnout, huh?
We want to run more of these, and we want to see this movement spread. Visit our website, or fork the github repo.

Thank you to our fabulous sponsors on the day:
+ Jimmy Jacobson
+ George Moncrief
+ Mark Walker
+ John Hawkins

and of course our indispensable volunteers:
+ Jacquee De Jesus
+ Song-I Yang
+ George Moncrief

Pawel and Song-I took some great photos here.
Some photos and videos I took of the day are below:

lauren

Austin

lego

song-i and pawel

nate

roobs and tyson

ryan and john

george

kevin

thank you notes and prizes

jacquee

Suz Hinton
Hi! I'm a web developer and tech enthusiast living in Brooklyn, NY. I like to work on weird stuff. noopkat.com
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