HackUPC 2017 – Barcelona Hackathon

Students at HackUPC, Barcelona, October 2017

Students at HackUPC, Barcelona, October 2017

A few months ago I was scrolling through the website of Major League Hacking, looking for a Hackathon to attend. Coding events like these are incredible opportunities for students to network with potential employers, work collaboratively, and learn new programming skills. MLH are a non-profit organisation who help students run large scale events, including RGUHack for the past three years.

One particular event caught my eye: a 36-hour Hackathon, in Barcelona, with over 700 hackers participating. It sounded too good to pass up and I immediately applied along with five other students from RGU. It would be the longest, largest Hack any of us had attended, and for some the first.

October approached and we gathered in Spain. The Hack was hosted by Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, who have years of hosting experience to ensure an enjoyable time for all participants. Organising food and sleeping spaces for 700 hackers and 80+ volunteers could not have been an easy task, but they did an admirable job. They also offered travel reimbursement, which was of great help to us coming from so far away.

After signing in, we headed to a tour of the MareNostrum 4, a supercomputer on the campus. It is the most powerful in Spain, featuring 165,888 processors, total main memory of 390 terabytes and running at a mind-boggling speed of 13.7 Petaflops. It’s situated inside the deconsecrated Chapel Torre Girona, and the contrast of the architecture made for a thought-provoking and inspiring visit.

The Hack began with the opening ceremony. There were talks from the many sponsors of the event, who created their own challenges for teams to participate in. For example, Skyscanner wanted students to inventively use their API; ImaginBank wanted the best chatbot for a financial app. There were numerous prizes across all the challenges, as well as the overall winners chosen by a panel of judges.

MareNostrum 4 supercomputer

MareNostrum 4 Supercomputer

After so many years of hosting, HackUPC have traditions such as ‘The Game’, a fiendishly difficult cyber security mini challenge; and the equally prestigious ‘Epic Nerf Guns Battle’. Throughout the event you could take a break from coding and listen in on one of the numerous CS talks, or network with the sponsors, who were delighted to tell you about themselves and ply you with branded goodies.

The RGU representatives split into two teams. Rhys Gardiner (honours year), Aleksander Rudenoks (degree year) and I (placement year) worked on a challenge we named EmoryLive. We used IBM’s Watson API, a large scale machine learning library, to analyse the tone/emotional content of text with a view to integrate it into email/messaging services, as a tool to improve communication and understanding.

Luke Fisher, Christina Moir and Fraser Barclay (all honours year) worked on VisuaDiary, a hack to help dementia suffers keep a track of visitation with loved ones and friends using facial recognition technologies and a simple android application.

It was a truly exhausting weekend, with very little sleep had over the 36 hours of programming. It’s a real test of mental endurance and teamwork to pull something together when the timer starts to run low and tensions are running high.

We showcased our creations to a number of sponsors and HackUPC volunteers, but unfortunately didn’t make it to the finals, in which 8 teams presented to all of the participants on stage.There was a broad range of entries, and competition was fierce, but overall 1st place went to LevioSound, who built a 3D-printed Arduino-powered device that used ultrasonic waves to levitate tiny plastic spheres.

Visiting the Sagrada Familia

Visiting the Sagrada Familia

We took advantage of the change in scenery and weather and spent an extra day exploring Barcelona, which was a great way to end the trip. We’ve come back with boosted skills, new ideas to incorporate into future RGU computing events, and even a bit of a tan. We’d love to have more RGU participants attending next year, and go to more further afield Hackathons.

RGU Computing Society President Luke had this to say about HackUPC: “This Hackathon was an experience that was both exhausting and rewarding. Conjuring a hack in a short period of time alongside 700 students is something I’ll never forget. With the support of partners and teammates, we gained valuable experience with new and exciting technologies. There’s no other weekend I can say I have enjoyed quite like this one”.

Rhys added: “HackUPC was an experience like no other. To have 36 hours of non-stop hacking alongside 700 others making such a variety of different hacks was surreal. It somewhat differs from 24 hours and everyone in the same room. It’s an experience I won’t forget for the laughs, fatigue and overall excitement of it all. I hope the team and I can get to another Hackathon soon! Fantastic trip with great company.”

Fraser said, “After being part of the winning team of this years RGU Hackathon, the challenge presented by attending an event like HackUPC, with around 700 participants from 48 countries, was extremely exciting. The experience was made even more special for me as it was my first time abroad; I couldn’t have asked for a better reason to go and the mixture of exploring and learning before, during and after the event was truly fantastic. Sharing this experience with some great friends, both old and new, will forever be a great memory and I look forward to more opportunities like this.”

If you’d like to know more of the technical details of the winners and our projects, check out these links: