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HackIllinois Draws More Than 1,000, Including An Open-Source Pioneer

3/1/2019 3:10:27 PM By David Mercer, Illinois Computer Science

Real nervousness about what it would mean to host more than 1,000 students, mentors, and others at the 2019 edition of HackIlinois didn’t set in for Co-Director Spencer Gilbert until a couple of hours before it started.

The pit of Android plushies was a popular stop at the 2019 edition of HackIllinois.
The pit of Android plushies was a popular stop at the 2019 edition of HackIllinois.
By then it was too late to change a thing -- “We have what we have,” the sophomore said – but he was about to learn just what a well-planned event he, Co-Director Aparajitha Adiraju, and the roughly 50 HackIllinois staff they led had put together.

“It was a little nerve-wracking to know that, in a couple of hours, the thing that you’ve worked for the entire year is actually going to come to fruition,” said Gilbert, a CS major. “But once the attendees come and things start moving, the event kind of runs itself, and it feels good.”

This year’s HackIllinois, held Feb. 22-24, drew about 950 students from 43 universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Georgia Tech University, the University of Florida, and the University of California, Los Angeles. Another 100 or so mentors from companies such as Google, Facebook, Mozilla, and Caterpillar were on hand to work with students.

And the event drew a well-known guest, attracted by the open-source theme of this year’s hackathon, Bruce Perens.

HackIllinois 2019 Co-Directors Aparajitha Adiraju and Spencer Gilbert talk to the crowd in Kenny Gym, one of the venues for this year's event.
HackIllinois 2019 Co-Directors Aparajitha Adiraju and Spencer Gilbert talk to the crowd in Kenny Gym, one of the venues for this year's event.
Perens is an open-source pioneer. He co-founded the Open Source Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting open-source software, and is a big enough figure in that arena that he’s among the people featured in a new IBM advertisement called “Dear Tech: An Open Letter to the Industry,” along with Buzz Aldrin, Arianna Huffington, Mayim Bialik, and others.

But getting to spend a weekend at Illinois Computer Science to talk about the subject he’s devoted to, it turns out, wasn’t so hard.

“Honestly, it was just an email,” Gilbert said. “He was very responsive to us and was super-excited about the event, and was like, ‘Yes, I would love to speak. Open source is my passion and you guys are passionate about it as well, so let’s make this happen.’”

The winners among the 71 submitted projects included work such as Grid-Strategy, an application programming interface; building detection software for OpenStreetMap known as OSM Building Detector; Entrilo, a website for organizing business trips; and NurseNet, a mapping algorithm to optimize home visits by nurses.

Another project, known as Subsync, won an honorable mention but generated an immediate buzz that resonated well outside the conference. Subsync, which was created by PhD student Stephen Macke and synchronizes subtitles so they start and end at the right points in a video, almost immediately rose to a top-five position on Hacker News.

Beyond coding, the weekend provided a range of other experiences, from bubble soccer to the chance to dive into a pit of green Android plushies provided by Google. But there were also quieter, more serious moments such as the Women in Open Source fireside chat, said Adiraju, a sophomore majoring in Computer Engineering.

“It was an intimate setting and allowed for a free flowing conversation, and hearing about all the different experiences that these open source developers had was extremely enriching,” she said.

The feedback about the weekend, Gilbert said, was immediate and almost entirely positive.

“We got great feedback from companies and great feedback from the students. It was the best thing to hear the students say, ‘Oh, this is a very well-organized hackathon, we’re super excited,’” he said.

HackIllinois participants play human foosball, one of a number of mini-events that were part of this year's event.
HackIllinois participants play human foosball, one of a number of mini-events that were part of this year's event.
Both Adiraju and Gilbert said the work they and others began as far back as May 2018 paid off in taking care a long list of logistical considerations – multiple mini-events, locations across several buildings on campus, food for more than 1,000, delivery of the all-important corporate swag (are you ready to take ownership, for instance, of 25 boxes of plushies from Google?).

Adiraju, though, said she might do one thing differently if she had the event to organize again – take more chances.

“Taking risks can really pay off in terms of new ideas for parts of the event, so this is something I would experiment with more,” she said.