What the heck is a hackathon? You might be asking this question when you hear Fargo is hosting a hackathon on December 3. We met up with Blaine Booher, founder of Clifton Labs and the main advocate behind bringing hackathons to Fargo, to bring you 5 things you didn’t know about Hack Fargo.
1. It does not involve “hacking” anything.
Last March during StartUp Weekend, Booher and a team started a group focused on bringing open data and hackathons to Fargo, which they called Hack Fargo. When people first heard of the event title, some asked him, “Do you literally mean you’re going to hack into the city?”
Of course not, he said.
A hackathon is a competitive event where those interested in computer programming and software developing come to build software projects. The challenge is that they only have a select amount of time; depending on the hackathon, it can go from a day to a week. Hack Fargo will be only four hours, increasing the challenge, and attendees can work in groups or separately. Application program interfaces (APIs) are published a few weeks beforehand, so that developers have data already available to work with.
“It’s kind of like a sporting event for programmers,” Booher explained.
As for the name hackathon, it’s a portmanteau of the words “hack” and “marathon.” The word “hack” here takes on it’s original meaning – which leads us to little-known-fact number two.
2. Hacking isn’t bad.
Today, the word “hacking” procures an image of basement-dwelling computer criminals breaking into private systems. But the original definition was something much different.
“Hacking in its original etymology, means playfully interacting with a system. In the 90’s a lot of people started breaking into systems and the media confused that with hacking,” Booher explained. “Breaking in is technically ‘cracking’, because you’re doing bad things to the system. Whereas hacking is like the guy that takes his old mustang and puts a new engine in it that’s never been combined before. It’s rebuilding something crazy.”
Hackathons in this sense really took off in the mid to late 2000s, and they are now held for two reasons. Some companies challenge developers to build something and the winner’s product is bought and sold. Some major companies have come from hackathons, including GroupMe, bought by Skype for 85 million in 2011, or PhoneGap, bought by Adobe in 2011 for an undisclosed amount.
Or, you throw a Hackathon just for fun. To build something. To get creative. That’s what Hack Fargo is all about.
“I’ve got like ten ideas I’d like to build,” Booher said. “I might build them this weekend, I might build them next year, I might never build them. But if there’s a Hackathon coming up, it’s dedicated [time] just to sit and work on something like that, it’s just an excuse to say ‘Oh well I have to get this done tonight, I might as well just get started on it.’ So you build it and see what happens. If you throw it away it’s not big deal. It’s a challenge to see what you can do in the shortest amount of time. That’s it.”
3. You can build whatever you want.
Yes, there is usually a theme – for Hack Fargo, it is mobile, and the data provided in the APIs will be centered around agriculture and healthcare. But Booher said these are just guidelines to help inspire ideas. The point is not that you stick to a theme, but that you are creative and build something neat in the given time.
“It could be literally the same as taking a Twitter account and mashing it with the police report,” Booher said. “All you’re doing is tweeting when someone reports something. That’s not that big of a deal, it’s maybe a couple lines of code if you’re familiar with both systems. You just build something kind of fun.”
For example, he said, if you are given soybean data in an API, there are multiple ideas: overlay the soybean output over a map and show which counties have the most soybeans; create an algorithm that associates temperature with the amount of soybean output; design a Facebook app that pulls in soybean data that you could use in Farmville.
The question to keep in mind, Booher said, is,“What’s the highest impact I can do with the least amount of work?”
4. Everyone is welcome.
That means everyone. Even if you don’t consider yourself that great of a developer, or even if you aren’t a developer at all and just want to watch the creative sparks fly. Graphic designers, website developers – you guys are all welcome as well.
“The whole point isn’t to make a masterpiece, it’s just make something you’re good at,” Booher said. “Anyone who is interested can come, if for no other reason than to see other people working.”
He said he expects the main draw of the event will be for the people who always have side projects going on, who use their spare time to build stuff in the garage. The beauty of it all is that those people often don’t know each other, and at a Hackathon they meet other like minds while also doing the thing they love.
5. Fargo needs hackathons.
Holding events like the Hackathon are a necessary part to creating a true tech hub, Booher said. Look at San Francisco, “you actually can not go to everything because there’s like five of these a night,” he said. What he sees as a problem in Fargo right now, is that the developers don’t really know each other.
“The Mobile MeetUp is a nice start, Hack Fargo is a nice start, but it’s really tiny. So things like this allow people that would otherwise maybe not know each other, or don’t know that events are going on, to meet.”
Booher, who moved to Fargo just over a year ago, took on the initiative to unite Fargo’s developers earlier this year with the first Hack Fargo. His motivation to bring this to Fargo drew high praise from GoodSurv co-founder, Sam Jacobs.
“Blaine is like a unicorn,” he said. “He’s this mythical creature that comes in and solves problems.”
Booher has worked with the team at Emerging Prairie to bring about Hack Fargo, which is sponsored by AT&T. It will be held on Wednesday, December 3, from 6 – 10 pm at Myriad Mobile HQ (503 7th Street North, Third Floor). Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for students, and this will go towards cash prizes [Edit: the event is now FREE]. Winners will be chosen on most interesting idea, most polished idea, and most crazy world-changing idea.
As we continue to weave Fargo’s tech community together, events like the Hackathon are invaluable. If people continue to engage in these events, Booher has high hopes for the future of Fargo’s tech community.
“Long term, the goal really is to just continue to get interest in building these kind of events,” he said. “You can’t have a healthy tech community if the tech people aren’t talking.”