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(Lauren Benson-Armer / The McGill Tribune)

McHacks draws top talent from across Canada and the U.S. to McGill

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The annual McHacks competition—a 24-hour student-run collaborative computer programming event—returned to McGill in full force over the weekend of Jan. 28 and 29.

Since 2013, the hackathon has attracted programming veterans and rookies alike to Montreal to compete for awards and prizes from the event’s many sponsors. This year’s sponsors, including Google and Microsoft, rewarded top hackers with Apple Watches.

The SSMU lounge, normally filled with McGill students catching shut-eye between classes, was packed with coders from universities across Eastern Canada and the United States. Two students in ‘Queens Computing’ varsity jackets squinted at their lines of colourful code as another student slept at their feet, using his hackathon t-shirt as a pillow. The floors were littered with take-out food containers, cans of energy drinks, and extension cords.

Members of the organizing committee, made up of McGill students dedicating their time and energy to pull the event off, were bustling up and down the stairs to get ready for judging.

“Basically it’s students coming in, making teams, and then they decide, ‘Oh, we want to make an app’ or, ‘We want to make a web application,’” first-time organizer Arun Rawlani, U3 Computer Science, explained. “These guys are up from Saturday morning until Sunday evening, they don’t sleep, and they keep hacking throughout it.”

Coders have traveled from as far as the University of Waterloo and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to compete against over 700 other students at McHacks.

“I think a lot of people come because at school they don't have time to do their own side projects consistently,” Queen’s student Matt Sims said.

These hackathons, typically ranging from 24 to 36 hours, are events where students team up to conjur up a project and stitch together pieces of code to transform an idea into virtual reality in a matter of hours. At McHacks, those ideas can be just about anything.

“I was looking through the project descriptions and there was this Trump project, that tries to ‘Trumpify’ every quote you see on the Internet by turning it into a Trump quote,” Rawlani laughed. “Just come and have fun, and if you really want to have a good project, you get good prizes as well.”

For all the sillier projects the McHacks judges see, there are just as many that left judges and fellow hackers in awe.

A group of first-year University of Waterloo students—Wilson Wu, Clive Chen, Alex Foley, and Colin Daly—brought their A-game, designing and creating voice-automated sign language hands. Their design, which can be used as a teaching tool for translating voice commands into sign language, won first place in this year’s competition.

One McGill team—Gabriel Downs, U2 Joint Honours Mathematics and Computer Science, Aidon Lebar, U1 Computer Science, David Lougheed, U1 Joint Honours Computer Science and Biology, and Michael Goodale, U1 Honours Cognitive Science—put a new twist on Facebook messenger.

The team designed a chatbot that can mimic conversation with a particular friend. According to Lebar, the chatbot uses previous messages from the friend as a dataset to adopt a similar conversation style.

“You talk to it, it imitates a real person, and you chat with it on Facebook,” Downs explained.

Some projects stepped into less familiar disciplines for most coders, even crossing over into the social science field.

“[Using Artificial Intelligence (AI)] in politics makes a lot of sense,” University of Waterloo hacker Moeyyad Qureshi said. “If a president wants to connect with his [or her] people, he [or she] can use his [or her] advisors, but then he [or she] will only talk to so many people […] if he [or she] used an AI that scanned through Twitter and read through the opinions of hundreds of thousands of people, then that’d be much better.”

His team used the application programming interface (API) Bluemix to scan through dozens of tweets and return a graphical emotional analysis. They typed in “Putin” to their program and a graph popped with various emotions along the x-axis. The red bar above “sad” towered above the rest. When they typed in “poutine,” the dominating bar switched to “joy” in blue.

The McHacks organizational committee worked to make McHacks as financially accessible as possible for all competitors from various universities.

“It’s completely free of cost, we make sure we get enough money from sponsorships to make sure it’s a really good experience for everyone that comes here,” Rawlani said, “We usually are doing travel reimbursements for people who are coming from Ottawa or Waterloo.”

In addition to covering the entry fee, meals, and snacks for participants over the two days, the team organized buses specifically for McHacks participants coming from the University of Toronto and the University of Waterloo.

In addition to accommodating university students from other provinces, the hackathon actively encourages high school students to attend. A group of students from F.A.C.E. High School in Montreal, Tristan Hamer, Linnea Sander, and Edgar Granados, explained that they found the opportunity listed on the McGill Computer Science website.

“We’re interested in this sort of thing and it sounded like fun,” Granados said. “The website said that high school students were extra welcome and it actually was an educational experience.”

Although the group didn’t complete their project in the 24-hour time constraint, they left with a new appreciation for coding.

“It’s definitely given us a lot of respect for programmers,” Hamer explained.

Following the 24-hour hacking period, teams set up at designated tables and demoed their programs. Hackers, interested observers, and judges moved between tables to explore the projects.

The judging panel consisted of experienced professionals from Deloitte, IBM, CPPIB, and Lexalytics, as well as a few select HackMcGill executives with hackathon judging experience.

McHacks racked up an impressive 18 sponsors this year, including Deloitte and IBM. This follows a trend of hackathons becoming a common hunting ground for tech recruiters.

Scott Armstrong of Interfacing Technologies, a firm based in Montreal that develops business process management software, says that he actively seeks out students who take part in hackathons.

“There’s more ambition [and] drive,” Armstrong said. “They’re not just going to school to write a test. To me, if you’re here, it’s not because you're forced to be here, its because you like to develop. I believe in them.”

That determination can help propel hackathon projects into long-term, intensive endeavors for students to work on throughout the year.

“We actually have a community organization,” Ben Emdon, a McHacks participant from Carleton University, explained. “We make a project at a hackathon and continue with it afterwards.”

Many hackers return year after year. The same McGill group of Downs, Lebar, Lougheed, and Goodale placed in the top ten in the 2016 hackathon.

“Our McHacks project from last year, [David] still works on all the time,” Downs said. “It’s called Sketchwave, and its a messenger, but you draw pictures.”

Since 2013, McHacks has been a place for hackers of all skills levels, ages, and universities to bond over code and lack of sleep. The event doesn’t show signs of slowing down anytime soon.

“The first edition had only 400 attendees, while [this year] we had over 700,” Rawlani wrote in an email to The McGill Tribune. “McHacks is a perfect example of McGill’s contribution to tech innovation and entrepreneurship and we are aiming to make it bigger [and] better next year.”

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