YHack attracts 1,100 students from 100 colleges

Photo of a room full of students working on their computers.
For 36 hours, groups brainstormed, collaborated and coded, churning ideas into software programs and regulatory solutions.

I love meeting new people at hackathons — the energy there, the excitement and the fervor,” said an 18-year-old hacker.

Benjamin Reichman was among the 1,100 students from roughly 100 colleges who came to Yale University for the international YHack hackathon challenge, held Friday-Sunday, Dec. 1-3.

I loved the actual hacking. I loved working with new technologies. I loved talking to the mentors and hearing what they had to say about what we were doing,” said Reichman, who attends The City University of New York’s Macaulay Honors College.

Following Friday night’s opening ceremony, companies and sponsors presented their 30-second hack pitch challenges to attendees, who were then free to choose their projects. For 36 hours, groups — typically of three or four students —  brainstormed, collaborated and coded, churning ideas into software programs and regulatory solutions.

Many of the YHack challenges looked at ways to employ technology for social change, Anusharee Agrawal, YHack board member, noted. “It’s nice to see that we (hackers) are using tech for good.”

Early hours into the competition, Seneca Meeks, a 19-year-old student from Brown University, opted to take on an educational hack. For her, the choice was obvious. “We want to make our lives [as students] better.”

A student sits with his computer, featuring a story about an ice age cave, turned toward the camer.
All told, more than $30,000 in prizes was awarded at the annual, student-run event.

There were financial, healthcare and civic hack challenges; and a competition sponsored by Yale’s Poynter Fellowship to find the best hack to counter fake news. Google was interested in the best Cloud platform hack; and there was an appeal by JetBlue to find the best use of its low fares and deals data.

Information booths, which lined the center of the Payne Whitney Gymnasium floor, were staffed with representatives from dozens of companies who were poised to answer students’ questions, and offer guidance and feedback.

Facebook, the most visited booth, wanted student teams to find the best use of the platform’s application programming interface (API) or software development kit (SDK).

Jason Brooks, a Yale graduate who participated in the first YHack and co-directed the two following competitions, returned this year as a Facebook representative.  Brooks said he was pleased that an increasing number of Yale students are participating and was impressed by the quality of the hacks. “We saw some really cool uses of people reverse engineering APIs to make their hacks happen,” he said. “It is really interesting to see how students can come up with these crazy ideas even when they have limitations set forth by companies and still do something really cool.”

Planned entertainment ran the gamut from an organized early morning meditation session to a ballroom dancing workshop and a rap battle. The Wifi strained at times, stressed by the plethora of users, with one YHack attendee commenting on Slack, “Wifi was so great when everyone else was asleep. But now it's slowing to a crawl.”

YHack is entirely student run. Shivam Sarodia, a student event co-director, said he likes the challenge and responsibility of pulling off such a sizable event.

At 8 a.m. Sunday morning, hacking teams turned in what they hoped would be winning ideas. Teams were judged on four criteria: how applicable and practical was their hack; was it user friendly; how technically challenging was it; and the novelty of the idea.

In total, more than $30,000 in prizes was awarded.

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