Hackathon Season is Upon Us

The use of the term hacker used to be derogatory, conjuring up images of someone cackling like a Witch, hunched over a computer as they steal some poor unsuspecting fool’s bank details. This is changing though, and the present use of the word is much broader and less critical.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about Aaron Swartz, and many see him as “a hacker for good”. He was greatly revered and respected in the Internet world and considered a programming genius by many.

Also today many Internet companies offer prizes to hackers who can break their security systems, so that they can then repair the weaknesses, all done more or less in secrecy obviously.

Here last week in Cambridge Massachusetts MIT held a Hackathon. The prize for the best “hack” was $1500 dollars, with plenty of runner’s up prizes too. And it is sponsored by Techfair, who organize a large business fair.

People from tech companies are invited to the hackathon to meet the ‘contestants’. It is in fact a job fair too, but as the website says don’t bring a CV, we just watch to see what you can do. There are tech talks and mini lectures, all above board as you can see from the website here.

A Hackathon

Inside a Hackathon

And this 20 hour marathon is neither the only nor the biggest hackathon in the USA. In January the Foursquare hackathon took place in New York City. The website has a link to all of the submitted hacks, and they are possibly nothing like you imagine. They are websites that can tell you how long you might have to wait in a certain restaurant, tell you NASDAQ values or help you influence the choice in music played around you, and that is to name just a few.

All this is organized with the help of Hacker League, as they say on the website you can “trust Hacker League to handle hackathon planning and organization” because they “power Hackathons”.

The biggest is in Pensylvania and is called PennApps (presumably after the University). Their January event attracted more than 450 students from 40 universities from all over the world, their prize being $4000 and a visit to Google HQ to demonstrate their work.

So the use of the word “hack” has clearly taken on a different meaning.

As many of you might know my work at the Bassetti Foundation is all about responsible innovation.  If we take case 1, writing code to steal bank details or destroy somebody’s reputation by getting into their email account, we might see this as irresponsible. But case 2, improving security, breeding entrepreneurs and innovation using the same skills and through the same actions by the same people, might be seen as much more responsible and in fact is promoted by organizations, businesses and universities.

It doesn’t look much like hacking to me though.

2 thoughts on “Hackathon Season is Upon Us

  1. Christopher Roberts

    Off one of the links you provided I managed to find this website: http://iamnop.com/webtube/ well worth a look, there are loads of cool features to explore – I thought it was a bit boring, then I did some more clicking and trying and wow!

    I once mentioned to someone who talked about hacking (in so many word) that they needed to ensure they didn’t stray onto dodgy ground, and they replied that the word hack has more connotations than just breaking something or trying to steal stuff – as you mention.

    From Wikipedia “In the computer security context, a hacker is someone who seeks and exploits weaknesses in a computer system or computer network. Hackers may be motivated by a multitude of reasons, such as profit, protest, or challenge.” – exploiting a weakness may be to change something for the better. Say Windows has a weakness which lets you get into the OS and get it to play your favourite music on startup (okay you can do that without a hack) that is a hack, but isn’t malicious.

    Great article, worth the read :-)

  2. I guess in some ways you can compare it to graffiti. There are some amazing graffiti artists who can create brilliant modern art. You then get a sizeable percentage of graffiti artists who simply mess up other peoples property.

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