HackIllinois: Concentrated Innovation

On Friday, April 11, the Thomas M. Siebel Center for Computer Science witnessed the first-ever HackIllinois event. This student organized and student run event brought in 750 students from 21 universities and college in the Midwest for a weekend of intense computer science competition and fun.

CS student Matthew Dierker was the director of the event. It was his email seeking volunteers in October 2013 that initiated the creation of this event. “My job was to build the whole thing,” he said. “To bring people in, and when they were there, to put them on doing things. Later we were moving people to coordinating with companies, and moving on to logistics, and making sure we have stuff for the website. It’s creating the teams, all that sort of thing.”

Dierker was assisted by CS students Marrissa Hellesen, corporate director; Emily Tran, operations director; Sam Gnesin and Sanny Lin, media directors; and Alex Burck, systems director. They also had a staff of over 50 who participated in these various areas. During the HackIllinois weekend an addition 200 volunteers assisted with the event.

Tran described the goal of HackIllinois as “[creating] a fun atmosphere where students get a chance to collaborate with their peers to work on cool projects outside of the classroom and to use the latest and greatest technologies.”

Throughout the weekend, the participants worked in teams of up to four. The projects could be anything they dreamed up, but the rules stated that projects had to be done during the HackIllinois weekend. Final projects were to be submitted on Sunday morning. Hellesen said, “They really just work from 10 p.m. on Friday night until 10 a.m. on Sunday morning.”

HackIllinois hosted 750 students from 21 universities and colleges in the Midwest.
HackIllinois hosted 750 students from 21 universities and colleges in the Midwest.

More than 57 companies provided financial sponsorship of the event. These companies also sent a total of 150 representatives to the event to interact with the participants.

The end of HackIllinois featured a Project fair in which teams showcased their projects. Judges were CS @ ILLINOIS faculty and some corporate representatives. On Sunday, the projects were judged, and the top 11 projects were announced. Top project honors went to teams from Illinois and Purdue. First place went to the Illinois team that created Walter, a news app; second place to a Purdue team that created Clock, a clock app for Pebble; and third to another Illinois team for GoQ, an office hours and course organizing tool also for Pebble. In addition, some sponsoring companies gave out prizes to teams that used their products in their team projects. Tran said, “There were so many new and useful tools and apps made that meshed together technologies in ways that were brilliant.”

Though the participants in HackIllinois were all computer enthusiasts, they couldn’t really go an entire weekend on a completely serious schedule. “Thirty-six hours is a long time,” Dierker said, “so we try to get them away from their computers as well.” One activity that the team organized was a tour of the Blue Waters petascale computing facility on Saturday.

Only the most technoloigically advanced construction material would do.
Only the most technoloigically advanced construction material would do.

Additional diversions were provided by the Moonshots, a group of (mostly freshmen) volunteers who were given the task to add some fun to the event. The Moonshots decorated the Siebel Center and DCL; brought in a photo booth; organized Nerf wars for the participants, staff, and sponsors; and even had therapy dogs visit. All to give the participants something to take their mind away from the computer for a time. “We told them, we’ll give you some money, so do something cool with it,” said Hellesen. “They just went nuts, and it was great.”

Organizers are already looking forward to next year’s event. Overall, they were very pleased with how things went this first event. “A lot of things worked really well,” said Dierker. “People enjoyed how organized everything was. People’s projects worked pretty well. I think sponsors were happy.”

The HackIllinois team had three areas that they wanted to keep problem free: food, power, and Wi-Fi. Except for some small problems with the Wi-Fi, the event went smoothly. This was in contrast to similar groups around the country where food ran out, or power went out, or Wi-Fi proved to be a continual problem.

Looking back over the event, Hellesen said that she would gladly give six months of her life to HackIllinois. “It gets the creative juices flowing,” she said. “You take a step back and do something totally different. It opens up a world of possibilities.”