Maryland Hillel sponsored their second JHacks Friday through Sunday, drawing over 90 participants, both Jewish and non-Jewish for a 20 hour hackathon.
The term “hackathon,” refers to an “invention marathon,” according to Major League Hacking, the official student hackathon league that organizes hackathons around the world.
This invention marathon consists mostly of computer programming and using technology to create new products for companies or consumers. The event takes place over an extended period of time, ranging from 12 hours to several days.
Hackathon participants program and develop their original products for most of the hackathon, then “demo” or pitch their idea to the rest of the attendees. After demos, winners are chosen based on a rubric given out by the specific hackathon.
But Maryland Hillel JHacks are unique from most hackathons, specifically because of the schedule.
Ethan Pedoeim, senior computer engineering major and co-vice president of Shabbat and Hackathon Planning described the problem facing Jewish hackers that led a group of Jewish students interested in hacking and technology to create JHacks:
“There’s a huge population of people that can’t attend most hackathons because hackathons generally begin Friday nights and go on 36 to 48 hours until Sunday afternoon or Sunday night,” Pedoeim said.
“In the Jewish religion, Saturday is the day of rest, so you’re not supposed to do work, you’re not supposed to use technologies or computers, so a lot of more religious Jews who uphold the laws of the Shabbat or the Sabbath couldn’t attend most hackathons because it conflicts with their religious beliefs.”
JHacks set out last year to solve this problem. They would hold a 20-hour hackathon, which is shorter than most, from Saturday night to Sunday afternoon. According to Pedoeim, the event was successful for its first year, but the organizers had bigger sights for where it could go in the future.
This year, JHacks strove to market itself as more inclusive. “We didn’t necessarily want to be just a Jewish hackathon.” he said. One tactic to make the event more appealing to all hackers was a conference held on Shabbat in Van Munching Hall instead of programming.
The conference included activities such as a cyber security talk with Jewish professor Jonathan Katz, director of the Maryland Cybersecurity center, and interview preparation workshops for jobs in technology.
The theme of this year’s JHacks was “hacking for a better world,” inspired by the Jewish principle Tikkun Olam, sometimes translated as “repairing the world.”
Programming began around 8:30 p.m. Students from the University of Maryland, Binghamton University, Rutgers University and other schools crowded around tables with computers and notebooks, discussing their ideas and designs while eating pizza.
Tali Ron, a sophomore math and computer science major and first-time hackathon participant, said working in an environment where she is within both her Jewish and computer science communities made her less nervous and less focused on winning.
“If this was a room full of strangers I would feel more, maybe less friendly, a little bit more competitive, more determined to win,” Ron said. “[But at Hillel,]if I suddenly get a headache from my project and want to take a break and wander over to a table with people who are in my classes and I might actually be able to help them. That would be amazing. I’d be happy to help.”
According to both Ron and MLH Operation Specialist Jade Yee, learning, not winning, is the focus of hackathons. “People might not realize it, but it’s a community building event,” Yee said.
Despite the positive attitude described by participants and organizers, hackathons may pose some major health concerns for frequent attendees. Ruoxi Li, a junior computer science major, has been to many hackathons, and won several. But Li was recently diagnosed with arrhythmia, an irregular heartbeat. He believes it is due to attending events like hackathons.
“It’s the culture for hackers, for engineers to work really hard, maybe throughout the night,” Li said. His concerns are that hackers are not getting enough sleep or eating well for the entirety of the hackathon. At many hackathons, the only sleeping space is the floor and the only food is pizza. JHacks had fruit, chips and soda in addition to stacks of pizza and provided sleeping spaces separate from programming spaces, but still with only floor space to sleep.
“The idea of a hackathon is like a hacking marathon. I think the whole idea is to let you hack without stopping, but I don’t think it’s a really good idea.” he said. At every hackathon, including those Li won, he went home to sleep instead of staying at the facility.
But an abundance of pizza did not hinder student teams Workrite, RX Alert and Watchit, who received first, second and third places respectively. Winners were based on the product’s or project’s technical difficulty; ideation, design and scalability; completion; presentation; and connection to the theme.
To win first prize, Workrite used accelerometers sensors small enough to be sewn into clothing to determine correct limb orientation when exercising. The accelerometer would alert a wearer differently based on whether he or she performed exercises correctly.
According to freshman electrical engineering major and JHacks Logistics team member Avi Passy, the biggest hits were the hardware supplied by MLH. The league brought Arduinos, Oculus virtual reality goggles and Pebble smart watches, all of which participants could try and use for free.
Though more teams than last year worked through Saturday night, spirits were not drooping Sunday, Passy said. Thinking back over the entire event he said, “All in all, it seemed like everyone had a lot of fun.”