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HackMIT kicks off coding marathon

Chloe Orphanides laughed during a hack to create an online voting system at HackMIT.
Chloe Orphanides laughed during a hack to create an online voting system at HackMIT.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE — In the middle of a chaotic arena crisscrossed by extension cords, Quanquan Liu dumped a pile of T-shirts and water bottles next to her laptop, getting ready to hunker down and hack.

The MIT senior and her partner, University of Toronto senior Leila Chan Currie, locked down a table as soon as possible on Saturday morning. Their paper- and cord-covered workstation in MIT’s Johnson Ice Rink would be their home for the next 24 hours as they took part in HackMIT, a code-writing marathon that spans one high-tech weekend.

The computer science contest’s guidelines are broad, but generally contestants are tasked with creating the most innovative software or hardware they can — in 24 hours or less.


And behind all the digital bits and bytes was something decidedly analog: a campground of sorts for the 1,000 sleep-deprived undergraduates, including fireside chats complete with pillows and blankets, cookies, waffles, and the option of a midnight stroll through the rain.

Katie Seigel, MIT junior and codirector of HackMIT, is going through her second year of the event.

“We’re hoping for it to go smoothly and we’re really focusing on the hacker experience,” Seigel said.

While last year’s inaugural event was largely managed on the fly, the organizers are much more prepared this time around, Seigel said.

Participants are undergraduates from any university. The roughly 1,000-person cutoff is for space alone — more than 5,000 people registered for the open lottery, which does not include the guaranteed spots for MIT students.

About 750 MIT students initially registered and 550 confirmed, but Seigel expected about 250 of them to wake up on Saturday morning and decide that a 24-hour hackathon wasn’t the best use of their day.

An additional 600 non-MIT students have confirmed, Seigel said.

“There are lots of people here, which keeps the energy up,” said Yi-Shiuan Tung.


Tung, an MIT senior, was working until almost 5 a.m. when he participated in last year’s HackMIT. The atmosphere and focus might let nearly a full night pass before he realizes how late it is, Tung said.

Organizers asked that competitors not sleep in the ice rink this time around.

Midafternoon Saturday, a young woman hurried after a brightly lit ball, controlled by her cell phone, as it rolled in front of her through the foyer, prompting laughs from nearby groups of students.

Other contestants were not concerned with having a plan hours into the start of hacking time.

Ashley Meng, an MIT sophomore participating for the first time, wanted to “see what the hype is about” after hearing of the hacking event from friends who helped organize it.

Though her team had not decided on an idea, “the people who are more serious will have come in with something more substantial,” Meng said.

Currie, who came from Toronto to work with Liu on a food recommendation app, has attended three prior hackathons, including HackMIT last year.

HackMIT is “exciting, because it’s one of the biggest hackathons and has a great atmosphere,” Currie said.

The event includes components that are welcoming to new coders as well as seasoned hackers, such as a Web Programming for Beginners workshop, according to Seigel.

The top eight hack teams will receive $1,000 to $4,000 in cash prizes. Through the hackathon, contestants will have chances to win other prizes from raffles or awarded by event sponsors.


About 30 event sponsors — including Google, Uber, Oculus, and Fitbit — gave quick pitches to the assembled hackers in an opening ceremony. They encouraged participants to experiment with the companies’ application programming interfaces, some offering prizes for the best uses of their technology.

Keynote speakers Adora Cheung, cofounder of cutting edge San Francisco-based cleaning company Homejoy, and Alexis Ohanian, cofounder of the influential online discussion forum Reddit, encouraged persistence in technological entrepreneurship.

“Don’t let not knowing what you’re doing stop you,” Ohanian said.

Hackers were given until 9 a.m. Sunday to submit their projects. The hacks will be judged and prizes awarded later in the afternoon.

About to begin brainstorming ideas with his team, MIT senior Michael Wu said the largely sleepless night would be worth it for the experience.

“It’s an opportunity to work on something I haven’t tried before,” said Wu.

Jennifer Smith can be reached at jennifer.smith@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, Quanquan Liu’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this article.