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'HopHacks' puts Hopkins students' skills on display

HopHacks — a 36-hour, sleepless, caffeine-fueled, mad-rush of computer programming — came to an end Sunday with bleary-eyed Johns Hopkins University students unveiling their (mostly) finished inventions ... and then crashing.

The creations, computer programs developed using publicly available code, ranged from the high-minded (an app to help connect the homeless to nearby shelters) to the college-minded (an app to find new happy hour deals).

There was a database to make DNA sequences easier for geneticists to search; an organizer for those never-read links and news articles emailed by parents; and a Pandora-esque program that generated playlists based on favorite bands. One group created a way to open computer programs by playing a guitar. Another instructed a laptop to solve a Rubik's Cube, cued by the wave of a hand.

In the end, the grand prize of $1,024 — a dollar figure that's an insider-computer-nerd joke for the number of bytes in a kilobyte — went to a foursome that devised an app called DropMe, which allows users to drop photos and other files onto a shareable, personalized map.

The application, team members said, would allow friends to show each other "cool places" in a more vivid way than on a traditional map.

"I'm running on Red Bull," said a smiling Brian Ho, 19, computer science major who presented the program for the winning team. "Mostly, Red Bull — and Mountain Dew."

The team of Ho and fellow sophomores Willis Wang, Sihao Lu and Mozhi Zhang said they initially struggled to come up with an idea for the hackathon, which began at 9 p.m. Friday at the campus' Hackerman Hall and ended at 9 a.m. Sunday.

Inspiration struck in the early morning hours Saturday, and the group hunkered down for a marathon session.

"It's rather unexpected," Ho said of the win. "We were pretty much working up until the last minute. There were a bunch of features we couldn't implement. The deadline was 9, and we were working at 8:45."

More than 130 students on about 50 teams participated in the student-run event, which was sponsored by Facebook and Bloomberg.

About 25 teams made it to the finish line with an invention, organizers said.

"It really gives students an opportunity to work on real-world problems and solve challenges quickly," said Nathan Schloss, 21, a senior who helped organize the competition. Schloss said he was impressed with the quality of work students completed.

Indeed, as the competition closed Sunday — with awards given out by a panel of Hopkins professors — it was a reminder of the diversity of work created.

Other interesting apps included a database of student IDs and dorm check-ins that could be used to help solve crimes, and a searchable system of dangerous diseases and behavior to help people determine how much risk they are exposed to on a daily basis.

There was also an interactive Baltimore crime database, letting users know when they're entering a bad part of town. Hopkins campus? "It should be fairly safe," the app advised. Random street in East Baltimore? "Dangerous — be on guard."

Some apps had potential widespread usefulness, such as a program to help college students track how much time they spend on certain types of homework.

Others were more esoteric. Honorable mention winner Matthew Petroff, 20, devised a program to scan old, large maps on a small scanner and then seamlessly paste them together on a computer. He produced a nearly-flawless 1915 map of Hopkins' Homewood campus. Unlike other contestants, he worked alone, figuring no one else would really be all that into something like scanning large, old maps.

"I'm interested in maps and panoramic photography," Petroff said. "This is the kind of thing I don't think anyone else would have been interested in."

Regardless of approach, Petroff and other finishers showed the vast creativity that can be unleashed when students are given a challenge, a tight deadline and a cash prize, organizers said.

Up next, Schloss said, is a plan to take similar student-run hackathons to all of Baltimore's colleges.

"It forces people to execute better," Schloss said of the intense time constraints. "And it makes it fun. It's a sprint."

luke.broadwater@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lukebroadwater

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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