Over the weekend of October 24-25th the City of Waterloo hosted its first Codefest (#codefestWaterloo) or hackathon. The City decided to have Codefest because they have been releasing a lot of great data over the years and they wanted to encourage the development of apps using it. After all you can have the best data set in the world but if people cannot access it and utilize it in a useful way, it will never see the light of day. Codfest was held at the Centre for International Governance Innovation located at 67 Erb Street West in Waterloo, Ontario. Raj Sian a staffer from the City of Waterloo was the main organizer and coordinator for the event. Not quite knowing what to expect at a hackathon I decided to volunteer to help out at the event. I figured this would give me a chance to see what it was all about and get to see the innovative ideas the participants came up with.
The event started Friday evening with a meet and greet for the participants. The real hacking was then set to begin bright and early at 7 am Saturday. The event ran for 36 hours straight and at stake were over $10,000 in prizes. My first volunteer shift was bright and early at 7 am on Saturday. The event was already underway as Raj and a few early risers had been there since 5.30. As 7 am rolled on we didn’t quite have the crush of participants we were prepared for but they did start trickling in. All of our lucky participants were given a sweet Blackberry backpack full of swag.
For my volunteer duties I manned the information booth with my trusty side kick Justin. We made sure people had release forms signed and directed them to Sabiha to get their swag. The participants were all super excited for the early start and got right to coding. The Master of Ceremonies Jeff quickly led off a meet and greet train to help people organize into teams. I helped with cleaning up and chatted with participants and the sponsors. I should mention that the sponsors are a huge part of Codefest, without them there wouldn’t be a space, food or prizes. The platinum sponsor was SAP and they even brought in couches and had a big group of staff on hand to chat. Both of the University of Waterloo and Laurier sponsered the event along. One sponsor that I was very excited to see would be coming was Esri Canada.
I also go to hand out dry erase and chalk markers to encourage partipants to draw on the windows of the building as whiteboards. It made a really cool effect and I should have gotten more pictures of it.
There were also a bunch of creative breaks to get people off of their laptops and socializing. For the first one they brought in a sketch artist to make every one fun name badges, the cards also had spots you could fill in with your skill level with various programming languages. Another was a a geodessic dome creating out of balloons. There were a bunch more scheduled throughout the weekend.
On Sunday I got back to volunteering at 4 pm. There were only 4 hours left to code and all of the teams were seriously at it. The atmosphere was great, everyone was super friendly with each other and they had really settled into the groove over the weekend. I helped tidy things up and run for a few supplies for the pizza party dinner. There was also a City of Waterloo cake, the cutting ceremony involved a song from MC Jeff. Most people were pretty hurried about eating with the deadline so close, and more than a few teams sent in a runner while the rest kept coding.
Finally the presentations were on us. The panel of judges was actually quite large, by memory it included representatives ranging from the mayor, the University of Waterloo, the University of Laurier, SAP, Cloud-A, Hackers Nest, and a few more I’ll try to look up.
All in all there ended up being 15 teams, ranging in size from independent coders up to seven. They were each given 3 minutes to pitch their app for the judges who then had to tally their scores instantly. Most contestants made videos or screen shots of their apps in preparation and a few were brave enough to try the live demonstration.
A few that stood out included Catherine Holloway who took the weekend to learn some new programming language to render an elevation map of Waterloo with building footprints and heights in a 3d viewer. City Tracker who modeled census data and City of Waterloo building permit data to create a a tool to explore areas under going gentrification. They packaged it all using Esri’s ArcGIS Online to display the data in a great looking choropleth map. They also let you use the app as a citizen, social worker or city planner.
Another team that really stood out was Timber… These guys took the City of Waterloo tree data (something like 30,000 trees) to create a social meetup app where you go out for a Treetup. That’s right you find a local tree and meet someone there. People can up vote trees they like or down vote ones that have problems like graffiti or invasive species. The data about poorly performing trees is sent to the city and up voted trees become hot spots for romance.
With so many great teams involved I did not envy the judges. But they did have to pick a winner, and it was….. Timber! I was so excited. I had talked to the team over the weekend and they were awesome. They had tunes playing in their coding corner and were all very friendly. Two of the team members were in high school and the third was in University. With such great attitudes they are going to go far. Second place was City Tracker, which I was also very impressed with, especially on a data analysis side. Getting dissemination data over the years to play nice with building permit data would be fun.