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Students create applications for Rice at Hackathon

By Jennifer Shen     2/14/13 6:00pm


Around 60 students traded their sleep and sanity last weekend to participate in Computer Science Club's second annual hackathon, HackRice, as they attempted to start and complete a software project within 30 hours. 

Contrary to what the name may suggest, HackRice does not involve any illegal hacking. Essentially marathons for computer programmers, hackathons provide programmers a chance to get together and complete a software prototype in a short period of time. 

The event began on Friday evening with a mixer for participants to discuss their ideas and to form teams. Coding officially began at 10 a.m. Saturday in Brockman Hall of Physics, according to event organizer and Brown College junior Salvatore Testa. 

Testa said the participants consisted primarily of computer science majors but also included some electrical engineers. The participants formed 12 teams, with two to five people on each team. 

The teams presented their prototypes at 4 p.m. Sunday to a panel of four judges: computer science professor science Scott Cutler, computer science lecturer Stephen Wong, Palantir software engineer Joe Sortelli and Datafiniti CEO Shion Deysarkar. 

The prototypes presented included a Rice-themed Risk game and a degree planner that will keep track of its user's progress in fulfilling his or her major and distribution requirements. 

The application that took first prize was OwlDine, an iPhone application that allows its users to check the menu at each servery. In addition, users can rate and review each dish by logging into Facebook. The OwlDine team also created an interface for chefs to add dishes to the application. 

Cutler said the judging criteria included look and feel, functionality, usefulness and technologies used. OwlDine was the judges' unanimous first choice, according to Cutler, who said he was impressed by the completeness of the implemented features. 

"[OwlDine] had the cleanest user interface and addressed a strong desire of Rice students," Cutler said. "They had a functional application implementing not only the client [iPhone] application, but also the back-end server." 

OwlDine member and Computer Science graduate student Weibo He said the biggest challenge was deciding what features to implement considering the limited amount of time available. 

"We ... plan to finish [OwlDine] up over [the] summer ... to benefit Rice kids," He said. "We all felt the need to have a more convenient and interactive menu app than the static PDF menus we have now." 

Some other teams also have plans to continue their projects. Brown college senior Wen Xing said that the degree planner she and her teammates worked on currently features a progress bar and checks with the students' class schedules to see if a plan is feasible. Xing said she hopes to get a more comprehensive database of classes offered at Rice through Cutler, who built the popular Schedule Planner. 

Every member of the first-place team took home a $150 cash prize. Members of the second-place received $100 each, and those on the third-place team received $50 each. 

Prizes were drawn every hour for 24 hours during the event to encourage participants to stay for the entire night, Testa said. Only the participants who were present at Brockman Hall at the time of drawing were eligible for the prizes. The prizes included an Amazon Kindle and an iPod Nano. 

Testa said this year's HackRice had more participants and sponsors compared to last year. 

"We were [also] very happy with the results and quality of the [prototypes]," Testa said. "It was an improvement from last year." 

Testa said the Computer Science Club plans to make HackRice an annual event. 

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