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Students Organize First 24-hour TartanHacks Hackathon

Byron SpiceMonday, February 6, 2012

Carnegie Mellon has long been a hotbed for hackers- programmers who enjoy exploring the boundaries of what computers can do. Expanding that subculture is a major impetus for TartanHacks, a student-organized 24-hour hackathon that begins at 6 p.m. Feb. 10 on the sixth floor of the Gates and Hillman centers.

Like other hackathons, TartanHacks is an opportunity for hackers to get together to build or modify software to create something that is useful, interesting or just cool. But ScottyLabs, the student group behind the event, also sought to encourage first-timers to take part.

"The ultimate goal is to get everyone with a cool idea to turn it into reality," even if each participant may not know how to do so at the outset, said Jeff Cooper, a sophomore computer science major and ScottyLabs' chief operating officer. Students didn't need to be part of teams to sign up; teams will be organized once the event is underway.

Borrowing an idea from the University of Pennsylvania's PennApps hackathon, the group organized four evening skill-building sessions that began Feb. 2. They sought out sponsors who not only would provide financial support, but also send engineers who could help participants use each sponsor's open APIs- source code that developers use to access software components they need to create apps.

Working with the School of Computer Science's Project Olympus, Women@SCS and the SCS undergraduate program, they enlisted a number of prominent sponsors: Microsoft, Twitter, online retailer ideeli, Yahoo!, Google and Facebook.

Student response was enthusiastic. Though initially planning on perhaps 100 participants, organizers expanded the event to include 150, more than half of whom are freshmen. More than a third of the participants are women- a marked contrast to other hackathons, where usually only 5 to 10 percent of participants are women.

TartanHacks also provides ScottyLabs an opportunity to introduce itself to students. "We're trying to encourage innovation," said Amy Quispe, a junior computer science major and ScottyLabs project director. In particular, the group is creating APIs that will make it easy for students to use Carnegie Mellon's public data bases- course schedules, dining information, sports reservations, and the like. That would enable people to create things such as smart scheduling apps that would help students select available courses based on graduation requirements.

"The idea is that we'll be doing the hard thing"- creating the APIs- "once," said Vinay V. Vemuri, a junior computer science major and the group's chief technology officer. That includes getting permission from each database stakeholder to allow non-commercial student use of the APIs.

About 25 students, including those in such majors as electrical and computer engineering, information technology and design, are active in the group.

Twitter, Microsoft and ideeli are platinum-level sponsors of TartanHacks, with Yahoo! a gold-level sponsor and Facebook and Google both silver-level sponsors.

For More Information

Byron Spice | 412-268-9068 |