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September 17, 2011

MyWebGrocer Hosts Vermont's First Hackathon (Updated With Winners)

VTHackathon_462x404***Updated with the winning teams below.***

Tonight at 6 p.m., dozens of web developers converge on the Champlain Mill in Winooski for the Vermont Hackathon, an overnight programming competition organized by MyWebGrocer. The Colchester-based company provides web solutions for the grocery industry. It recently purchased the mill, and plans to relocate there once construction on its new office space is finished.

Hackathon contestants will use MWG's application programming interfaces (APIs) to create something cool. Or, as MWG puts it in the advertising, "something that makes us go 'AMAZABALLS!'" Have you ever heard anybody actually say that?

I might say that if somebody gave me some of that prize money; the winners will split $10,000. There are door prizes, too, apparently. And MWG is supplying contestants with lots of snacks and energy drinks to give them creative energy.

Hackathons are common events in places like Silicon Valley, but this is the first one around here, as far as I can tell. MWG is hosting it to celebrate the fact that there is, in fact, a developer community in Vermont. And also because this is a great way to recruit potential employees — the company has 20+ open positions listed on its website.

I'm curious to see what the hackers come up with in the next 24 hours. Tyler Machado will attend the closing ceremonies tomorrow and share the results. Each individual or team has four minutes to present their entry, which will be judged on program utility, creativity, usability, quality and a demonstration. The judges include Rich Nadworny, digital strategist; Julie Lerman, the programmer who literally wrote the book on .net programming; Jon Woodward, a business development guy from Wolfram Alpha; venture capital guy Cairn Cross; and "local nerd" Tim Kenney.

I'm going to try to swing by for the kick-off, and since I live two blocks away, I may wander past late at night to see how the harried hackers are faring. Just for the hack of it (sorry, couldn't resist). If you're curious and waiting for an update, click here to watch MWG's live stream of the event.

Update 9/17/11 by Tyler Machado:

Mwg-table All-night coding sessions are common among tech start-ups. Apparently you can't be disruptive without first disrupting your sleeping patterns.

It's too early to tell if the next Mark Zuckerberg was among the bleary-eyed participants who presented their projects today, but the creative ideas that hatched from the hackathon were admirable — if for no other reason than that their creators were delirious from sleep deprivation.

Participants had 21 hours to put MyWebGrocer's APIs to use in a brand-new application. They worked on the third floor of the Champlain Mill, which was packed end-to-end with tables covered in laptops, smartphones, external monitors, and energy drink cans — funny to think that it was once filled with looms.

The hackers were predominantly, but not exclusively male. Some were Burlington-area locals, others traveled from elsewhere in Vermont and the Northeast. The group that traveled the farthest came from Fall River, Massachusetts, which seemed oddly appropriate — Fall River is where Emeril Lagasse was born, and it's home to lots of old textile mills much like the one in which this hackathon took place.

About 25 contestants presented their concepts at the hackathon's end, most in teams of two or three but some solo. Nearly all of the ideas were still rough around the edges, but presentable. A couple groups didn't finish in time and had nothing to show off. Man, it must be rough to stay up all night and come up empty-handed.

The semi-finished projects were very diverse and showed that there are myriad ways to use the same APIs differently. A recipe suggestion app used responsive web design to resize and reshape the app so that it looked beautiful and remained usable whether you viewed it on a desktop PC or a smartphone. On the other end, there was an application designed to help you find inexpensive and/or healthy food options that ran in a command-line interface.

The content of the projects varied wildly, too, from the utilitarian (shopping list apps) to the informative (a heat map of average milk and eggs prices in different areas) to the surreal (a game in which users shot coupons at food items, a la the old video game Asteroids).

Mwg-hackaton-winners After deliberating for 45 minutes, the judges named John Pile, a.k.a. Chinook, the first-ever VT Hackathon winner (pictured, center, with Rich Tarrant Jr.). Pile, a game developer who teaches at Champlain College, was one of the few contestents to create a game. In it, players are tasked with picking the right foods to feed their family. Think "The Sims" taking place in the grocery store. Yes, the game is essentially a digital version of your weekly grocery store run. But wouldn't you enjoy grocery shopping a little more if someone turned it into a game?

Pile's wasn't the most visually attractive project, but the small details were impressive and very clever. He used the MyWebGrocer APIs to add real food items, with real nutritional information and real prices, into the game, so players are expected to feed their "kids" well while keeping expenditures within a fixed income. And it's not as simple as picking healthy fruits and veggies  — players must also get the occasional sugary snack to keep the kids happy. That's right, even virtual children don't want to eat peas and carrots.

Perhaps most remarkable is that Pile, as a solo hacker, managed to pull the entire thing together himself, with no break for a nap. Okay, maybe one quick nap. "I kind of dozed off about 10 this morning," he admitted. "I laid my head down on the desk, and my buddy that was further down the table said that he heard me snoring. But I was only out for about 10 minutes!"

Pile admitted he hadn't even planned on attending the hackathon at first. He said he got the "hard stuff" done early this morning. "The rest was just pushing through to finish it," he said. "I just decided to go ahead because I was having fun with the code. I never expected to win. It's still hard for me to believe."

The second place team, AmazaBoston (Joan Wortman and Bill and Maura Wilder), traveled from Massachusetts for the event. Tristan Davies, an 18-year-old Burlington resident, finished third. He created a mobile app that scans the barcodes of your items to provide a real-time total of how much you're spending — a boon to people who always end up shocked when they see the total at the checkout line (including yours truly). He said he was struggling to come with something initially, but got his $2,000 idea after a half-hour nap.

See? There's something to be said for at least a little bit of sleep.

I hope everyone has a fun time! Well no where near the same scale, the local PHP Users Group hosted a "hackathon" last year:

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