Syracuse University students develop digital products for MLB during overnight hack-a-thon

More than 70 students, from across nearly every SU school, gathered at the iSchool for the second annual College Challenge.

It was 9 p.m. when sophomore Max Greenberg gathered with the rest of his group, Team Winston, in one of the computer labs in the School of Information Studies’ (iSchool) basement.

Greenberg, who studies information management and technology, thought the problem his challenge group needed to solve was what to do about the slow nature of a baseball game.

Photo: Lorenzo Arguello
Seniors Ben Romy, Andrew Wynschenk and Eric Zeleznik (from left) hold their award certificates after taking first place in's College Challenge Nov. 11.

Extra Innings

Stats: Participants by SU College
Video: Behind the scenes look at Team Winston

Team Winston, along with 16 other groups of Syracuse University students took part in the iSchool’s second annual College Challenge on Nov. 10, 2011.

A total of 71 students from across the different SU schools teamed up in groups of two to five to create products Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM) could use to enhance MLB's digital presence.

Unlike last year’s challenge, where students had several months to develop a product before presenting it to judges at’s offices in New York City, this year’s competition was an overnight hack-a-thon.

It began at 6:30 p.m. when 2008 iSchool alum and current MLBAM Product Development Manager Josh Frost gave each team its task during a dinner at the Carmelo K. Anthony Center.

Three judges from — Mike Hoffman, Joe Kanakaraj and Frost, all SU alums — acted as venture capitalists representing MLBAM and looking to invest in one of the ideas students would present the following afternoon.

The 71 students had varying levels of experience, with freshmen making up the largest group:

Kanakaraj, who graduated from the iSchool in 2001, was excited about what he saw early on in the night.

“I’ve heard a couple of things that I’m like, ‘wow, that’s something we should totally be doing,’” he said.

After about an hour of discussion, Team Winston settled on a product that would fill in for the many breaks during a game: a social betting tool where users earn points for correctly predicting the outcome of each pitch.

With an idea in tow, iSchool sophomore, Neil Winston, freshman, Ben Reilly and Whitman sophomore, Seth Kaufman, ran across the hall into an open classroom equipped with large white boards where they could get to work on designing their product for the judges.

While their teammates headed off to work out the design details, Greenberg and iSchool freshman, Ross Lazerowitz, began coding the application.

Bottom of the 3rd: Some Teams Are Still Struggling

Although some groups, like Team Winston, had their idea set just a few hours into the competition, others didn't figure it out so quickly.

Rich Tehan, an information management and technology senior, and his four Saltine Warrior teammates, were trying to choose between competing ideas. After a lengthy brainstorming session, they were down to two products: social media interaction for live streaming games; or an application integrating Foursquare check-ins and Meetup, a social group organizer, in order to bring fans together at bars or restaurants.

Ariel Norling, a policy studies senior, thought the Saltine Warriors' early struggles were a result of the vague task prompt from the judges.

“There was not a lot of direction in the prompt and since none of us are real huge MLB fans it’s not as obvious to us what’s lacking,” she said.

Kanakaraj didn't view the broad guidelines as an obstruction, though.

“Having it be open ended like this, someone can find something that they’re very passionate about and this could spring into a career for them and they could become an entrepreneur,” he said.

Ariel Norling was the only Maxwell student that took part in the competition. Here's how the SU colleges stacked up (Note: each group required at least one iSchool student and dual majors were counted twice):

Top of the 4th: Taking a Lead with a Solid Product

At one point, the judges visited Team Winston's quarters to see what progress the team was making and they came away impressed.

“They said they’ve never heard anything like it,” Kaufman said.

A closer look at Team Winston's idea from start to finish:

Just after midnight, following a short baseball and IT trivia break that yielded free hats from the judges, the Saltine Warriors elected to work on the app for fans gathering at bars or restaurants.

Both Kanakaraj and Hoffman stopped by to offer advice.

“If it’s something you believe in, don’t try to do too much,” Kanakaraj told them. "Focus on that."

The group came away confident after chatting with the judges, they said.

Although they were already several hours into the competition, students still had more than 15 hours to go before it would all be over.

Bottom of the 7th: Students Pitch Their Products to the Judges

A very long night of work came down to a short presentation session followed by questions from the judges.

As the presentations began at 1:30 p.m., the judges seemed impressed with students' ideas, whether it was launching a standalone website catered to women or integrating social media into different areas of

Product pitches lasted a little more than two hours, with a few students getting some unintentional shut-eye while other groups made a case for their ideas.

Bottom of the 9th: Picking a Winner

All eyes were fixated on Josh Frost as he announced which group would get the chance to spend a day at's New York City offices.

The Naturals won first place for creating "MLB Memories," a mobile app allowing fans to keep track of everything from a visit to the ballpark. The app organizes photos, personal notes, and social media activity by game in the form of a digital ticket stub.

Seniors Eric Zeleznik from the Newhouse school, Ben Romy from the iSchool, and Andrew Wynschenk from Whitman, all looked at each other in amazement as the announcement of their win was made.

“The way he explained the winner, he was like, ‘It was very professional; did exactly what we asked for.’ We we’re like, ‘We’re done. See you later,’” Wynschenk said. “And then when they said our names we literally just looked at each other in shock. It’s what we least expected.”

The Saltine Warriors received second place.

“It’s unfortunate we didn’t get first, but for me personally I think if there was one idea that was a little more creative than ours, I think they [The Naturals] definitely did that,” Tehan said.

As for Neil Winston — from whom his team got its name — he was happy with their fifth place finish, he said.

Overall, the judges were pleased with the competition.

“They were coming up with ideas that we, as an organization, have come up with," Mike Hoffman said. "A lot of those are not public, so it’s interesting to see that they’re coming up with the same quality ideas that we come up with.”

Most importantly, though the challenge provided them with a fun way to give back to their school.

“I could cut a check for X amount of dollars to the alumni center or I could come here for a couple days and work with students,” Kanakaraj said.

Jeff Rubin, an iSchool professor who has been in charge of the competition for both of its years, said he couldn’t have asked for anything better.

“This is truly one of the more rewarding experiences as a faculty member,” he said. “You like to complain that students don’t put enough effort inside the classroom or on the assignments, but then you see something like this and how excited they were by this challenge.”

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