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Towson

Towson teen takes first in technology competition

Ever since Peter Collins won first prize in a prestigious technology competition, he's been getting offers. There was the California company called Snap Card, a digital payment start-up. AOL and Black & Decker weighed in. So did a flurry of local companies.

Collins turned them down, the paid internships and freelance offers. After all, the Towson resident is only 16, a junior at Carver Center of Arts and Technology, in Towson.

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"My priority is to finish my education," said Collins, a teenager with striking blue eyes. His parents are Pat Christie, owner of a technology recruiting firm, Peeps and Tech, and Dan Collins, head of strategy at GKV Advertising.

Collins had never heard of the competition, the Third Baltimore Hackathon, until his mother mentioned it. She encouraged him to enter but he balked.

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It wasn't as if Collins wasn't familiar with such contests. The previous year, as a sophomore, he'd entered two and done well. Out of 50 students from all grade levels, he won a Carver-sponsored game-making contest. He came in second in a 2nd Congressional District contest for students.

But the Third Baltimore Hackathon was a different story. It was the major leagues, a showcase for those in the field to strut their stuff.

Held every other year since 2010, the Baltimore Hackathon allowed hardware developers and software designers to demonstrate their talent and ingenuity to their peers and, not incidentally, the tech companies that scout such events for potential hires.

"I wasn't really interested. I'd be the youngest there. The others would be out of college and have jobs," said Collins, explaining why he didn't want to enter.

As it turned out, he was right. Of the 100 contestants, Collins was the youngest by far — not only as this event but at the two previous Baltimore Hackathons. That didn't matter to his mother. "I know I'm biased but he's very sharp," said Christie. "I wouldn't have put him in it otherwise."

There are plenty of hackathons locally and nationally. Some are sponsored by universities like Johns Hopkins and University of Maryland, Baltimore County for their students. Others are sponsored by tech companies to promote their products. Next month, the Walters Art Gallery is sponsoring its third ArtBytes, a hackathon that melds art and technology.

The Baltimore Hackathon is unique, according to Jason Denney, a software engineer at Lookingglass Cyber Solutions and one of a group of volunteers who organize the event. It's open to the public, judges come from a variety of fields and any creative technology project is welcome.

Held over a weekend, Nov. 14-16, at the headquarters of Advertising.com, the concept is to go from idea to prototype in that time. The Baltimore event had two categories — hardware and software — for individuals or teams, a total of four winners in both categories.

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When Collins and Christie arrived at the event on Friday Nov. 14, he was ready to leave before he got started. "I didn't want to stay. It was intimidating," said Collins whose mother, nonetheless, paid the $15 entry fee, which included snacks and a T-shirt.

Collins chose to enter as an individual, and his idea was a multi-player game he calls Node Swipe. He had created a single-player game for a school project but this was his first attempt at a multi-player game.

"The logic is the same but you have to redesign the way you run the game," Collins said of single- versus multi-player games. Node Swipe is a website application in which two or more players compete for the highest score.

Collins also prepared for the hackathon's finish on Sunday, when all the contestants explain their projects' technology to each other and about 50 more people in the tech field who join the audience.

"I was ready for the question-and-answer period," Collins said. "But mostly, they asked where I went to high school."

Then, the winners were announced. Collins won first prize in the individual software category, as well as being chosen audience favorite. Besides the considerable prestige, he won $600 in prize money.

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"I was shocked," Collins said. "I started clapping for the winner and then I realized it was me."

Christie had the same reaction. "When his name was announced, I couldn't believe it," she said. "I thought he could hold his own but there was no expectation that he'd win."

"His game isn't technically complex but it's impressive because of being multi-player and his creating it in a weekend," Denney assessed Collins' Node Swipe. As for audience favorite, he continued, "partly it's his youth but also, his presentation was good and he had good technology."

This is a first for Tom Dissinger, Carver's head of information technology and computer science. He's never had a student compete in a hackathon before. He didn't know Collins, whom he teaches, was entering one. But he doesn't sound surprised at the outcome.

"Peter often goes beyond the content and scope of what we are doing. He will research on his own," Dissinger said. "For a study on the environment, he read the technical documentation."

As for Collins, he has largely moved on from games. His focus now is drones or, as he put it, "the embedded system development, hardware and software, in drones with arduino and AVR microcontrollers."

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He has also changed his opinion of the Baltimore Hackathon, now that it's over. "It was definitely fun," he said, "and I met a lot of new people."


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