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Hacking like a Husky at the MassCEC Cleanweb Hackathon!

June 1, 2016

About Me

Saad Qasim (third from left above) is a MS student in Energy Systems as a Fulbright Scholar from Karachi, Pakistan. He did his Bachelor’s in Computer Engineering from the Lahore University of Management Sciences and then worked for 5 years as an SAP Consultant for leading power utilities in Pakistan and Lebanon. He is also the Vice President of Student Relations for the Energy Systems Society at Northeastern.

Hacking like a Husky at the MassCEC Cleanweb Hackathon!

It was Friday evening, 1st April 2016. Tech companies around the world were pranking users with SnoopaVision videos and MicDrop buttons. Meanwhile LogMeIn, a tech firm in Boston, was hosting a Hackathon to solve environmental issues by bringing together developers, content experts and community members from the industry.

I was attending the MassCEC Hackathon purely out of curiosity. After finding the event on Eventbrite, an app to help people find local events of their interest, I decided to register as a Content Expert since my area of studies is Energy Systems.

I’ve always found that I learn more from interactions outside the classroom, especially by talking to the attendees at Cambridge and Boston events. Since I was one of the first to reach the event, I started working the room and introducing myself to people. Student, consultants, non-profits, developers, designers and policy advocates were all in attendance. Soon I had identified some people who I wanted to team up with.

After the introductory speeches, several attendees pitched their ideas. This was one of the coolest parts of the whole hackathon. The fact that people were encouraged to openly express their ideas, with no regards to how impractical or irrelevant they might be, made a big impression on me.

A hackathon by its very nature is informal and judgment free, at least during the development stage. Freed from the pressures of conforming to what’s acceptable in professional or academic life, you can focus all your energy on a single measurable goal. Coming from an IT background, with all its documentation and procedures, a hackathon is liberating because it allows one to remove such distractions and get on with the actual work.

The pitch our team liked was delivered by Celis Brisbin, who works at the US Green Building Council. The idea was to build an app that allows users to interact with their policymakers from directly within the app while staying up to date on energy and environmental topics.

Joining our team were Farah and Deema, both from Northeastern University, as well as Budi, an MBA student at Boston University. Deema and Budi both had programming experience and did the lion’s share of the app development. Farah was a User Interface expert who designed the logo and icons as well as the layout of the app. Rounding out the team were Troy, an energy engineering student from Columbia in NYC, Alec, a consultant in the Boston Area and Jacob, a clean energy professional.

Day 2 – Get to work!

We met up at the LogMeIn office early the next morning and got to work. The first order of business was deciding the app’s name. After a long discussion we settled on CivicArena by voting. Then the tasks were divided amongst the team and written on the charts we taped on the walls. The core responsibilities were branding, content creation and App development.

Thanks to the experienced and talented individuals on the team, we were organized from the get-go. Tasks and ideas were written on charts and divided up. Given that we had to develop a working prototype and have it ready for presenting to the judges within 30 hours, we had to drop of a lot of cool features and ideas we had originally planned. We decided to have regular check-ins with the entire team to get updates and provide help when it was needed.

Throughout the day we got delicious snacks and meals from the organizers as well as a chance to attend breakout sessions meant to provide us with skills and information to succeed in our projects. One such session I attended was about the utility and energy usage data used by a Clean Tech company and the dashboards they had developed for their users in Massachusetts. I hope to keep in touch with their team since their work is similar to what I’ll be working on in my upcoming co-op.

Day 3 – Race to the finish!

On Day 3, there was an increased sense of urgency but also pride at what we had accomplished in the last 24 hours. We had an Android app ready, but version 1.0 was still buggy and needed refining. The morning was spent in preparing the app content and practicing our pitch for the afternoon. I helped out by finding ways to speed up the app navigation and figuring out how to show the smartphone screen on the projector during the pitch. 

The Panel of Judges

At two in the afternoon, we gave our pitch and demonstrated our app. Things went smoothly and it was a relief to have the pitch out of the way. While awaiting the voting and the results, some of us played pool to calm our nerves.  We also watched the other pitches and talked with the other participants about their apps and inventions.

Finally, the results were announced and our team got the 3rd prize!

Some of the team members will now participate in an eight week Accelerator program to try to take the app to the next level and reach its full potential.