Hack Upstate participants solve real-world problems with technology

CNY technologists and designers collaborated to create new apps and technologies to aid their communities.

Jaws dropped around the room when 14-year-old Jack Cook presented what he had taken fewer than 24 hours to create. 

Cook, a freshman at the Bronx High School of Science, had, alone, created a virtual tool to make website programmers aware of errors that are normally nearly impossible to see and resolve.

He was presenting his program, called Fetch Errors, at Hack Upstate, one of the largest gatherings of programmers and techies outside of New York City.

Photo: Blair Sylvester
Participants were encouraged to make creations that could be entered in the AT&T CNY Civic App Challenge after Hack Upstate.

Hackathons, like Hack Upstate, do not have much to do with the connotation “hack,” said Tony Kershaw, the innovation specialist at the Syracuse Tech Garden in downtown Syracuse. The biannual Hack Upstate is held at The Tech Garden.  

“Hackers really play an essential role in building the infrastructure of the future,” Kershaw said.  “It’s hackathons like these that really generate those innovative ideas and the necessary connections.”

Hackathons are multiple-day events in which techies of all levels, even just those with an interest in developing new ideas, gather for a weekend of brainstorming, socializing, and even networking. Often, participants don’t leave the building where they meet for more than 24 hours.

There were no rules or themes for this hackathon, but the creative use of technology was a major factor of the judging process, said Hack Upstate co-creator and current organizer Doug Crezcenzi. However, he said that participants were encouraged to make creations that could be entered in the AT&T CNY Civic App Challenge after Hack Upstate.

The AT&T CNY Civic App Challenge is a two-month virtual hackathon in which technologists and designers can win prizes for creating new ways for technology to help their communities.

Although he was not a judge, Crezcenzi said he thinks the overall wining team of the networking tool Sprawl put the most innovative use of an existing technology into their final product. Sprawl localizes the Internet and makes it faster and more accessible to those who often can’t afford it or live in a place where it is reliable. The team won two GoPro Hero3 cameras.

They were one of 150 who registered through the website Hacker League, Crezcenzi said, from many areas outside of Syracuse, including Toronto, Rochester and New York City.

14-year-old Cook from New York City arranged his own transportation to Syracuse.

He worked through the night on Fetch Errors and his hard work paid off. He took home the second place prize of two Spark Master Kits, used to create simple Internet-enabled projects.

“It feels really good,” Cook said. “Part of me is thinking if I’m doing this as a high school freshman, what will I be doing as a senior?”

Cook said he plans to continue attending as many hackathons as possible because he finds that they are where he is most productive.

Over 18 hacks, or prototypes, were created and presented during the two-day event.

Other hacks included a Smart Mailbox that can send an email to a user when they get a letter in the mail, a social event finder engine called Flare MVP, a device that uses the app Evernote to organize information for journalists and an old child’s keyboard rewired to make unique sounds.

Many participants were current Syracuse University students.

Aravind Gopalakrishnan, a graduate student at the School of Information Studies, came to the hackathon knowing he wanted to work on a program that could help college students locate free food on campus.

He said he hoped this could not only satisfy a common craving among frugal college students but also prevent food from getting needlessly wasted after events.

Although Gopalakrishnan said that his background is primarily in technical consulting, and he is not the type of person to stay up all night coding, he still pitched his idea.

“I don’t expect this to be successful, but I’m sure I will have fun building it and I’m going to find some people who are interested in helping me,” he said just before his pitch.

Gopalakrishnan was right. He soon joined forces with an interdisciplinary team that included three students from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and a programmer who frequents hackathons.

Together, they created Raccoon, written for the web with mobile capabilities and Android push notifications. The website is currently live and can be accessed at raccoon.burmat-it.com.

Although Raccoon did not win a prize, it still impressed one of the judges – Chelsea Rao, the Vice President of Digital and New Media Development for the Empire State Development Corporation.

“Although they were truly student-focused, they really used the different skills of their team well,” Rao said. “They created a really beautiful interface with the technology to support it.”

Rao said that of all the hundreds of hackathons and other similar tech start-up events she as been to, this one was one of the most diverse and she was pleasantly surprised to see such robust talent focused in Syracuse, New York.

However, she also said she enjoyed how the event seemed to be a place of learning in an environment that was not overly serious.

“The thing that I really loved about this hackathon is that I don’t think most people just showed up to win prizes,” she said. “People really just came to see what they could build, to be a part of the community and to do something fun.”

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