HackIllinois 2017: Illinois Tech students win grand prize and other prizes

Tue, 2017/03/07

HackIllinois is a hacking event co-hosted by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) and Fulcrum GT, a software company serving the legal field. Since its inception in 2014, HackIllinois has bred the hackathon culture with liveliness.

This year, HackIllinois was the first open source-focused collegiate hackathon to be held at UIUC. Attendees were classified into two distinct tracks: "contribute" and "create". The contribute track was mainly for those who could work on existing open source projects. Guided by core developers, these participants could contribute their first additions to larger software tools. Slightly less challenging was the create track, which encouraged students to work on any project of their choice that pertained to the hackathon theme. They would create a project that could later be further developed and implemented in a real-life context.

Following a screening of programming skills, hackers who were accepted were placed in either the contribute or create track. Some had to choose which track they preferred, while others were fit into tracks in a predetermined fashion. Most of attendees arrived around 5 p.m. on Friday, February 24 from 11 different colleges in Illinois.

Illinois Tech students were not simply attendees; but were winners too. In a team, Saikiran Yerraguntla, Aqueel Miqdad, Aditya Parakh, Sudipta Swarnakar, and Saptarshi Banerjee, all computer science (CS) majors, created an iOS health-related app named Heal. This app was based on the concept of "Uber for people in need of care." The team acknowledged the fact that it can be pretty hard for seniors to receive support from their family; especially when they are alone.This project was meant to assist those elderly persons.

The Heal app was designed for any iOS users to find caregivers in their vicinity. What inspired them? These Illinois Tech students aimed to improve the life of people in old age by fostering a network that could connect them with compassionate health care providers. The app is meant to be user-friendly: seniors could actually type in the symptoms that they are currently experiencing, and Heal would list the nearest available caregiver. Through Heal, the caregiver could also obtain the medical conditions of that respective senior.

Their project truly impressed the judges. The team was awarded with a number of sponsor prizes. One of the hackers, Yerraguntla, said: “John Deere gave us the second place. I was so thrilled and could not believe my eyes. After taking pictures with John Deere’s crew members, the whole sponsor team of Fulcrum [GT] announced us the winner. We actually secured the first place. It was simply unbelievable. Then, Firebase gave us the ‘Firebase champion trophy.’”

When asked about the challenges that their team faced; Miqdad stated “it was hard to put together a team because we had multiple themes to choose from and the team was originally of different minds on what to do in this hackathon.” Also, they chose an iOS app despite being fully aware that it is one of the hardest things to put together in under just 36 hours (or less). Miqdad acknowledges that the most important attribute of their success was “the sync of our team.”

One of their team members, Parakh, came late. He missed the bus as he was caught up in a Finance Board meeting at Illinois Tech. However, he was still very passionate about the hackathon. He stated: “I came in hungry around midnight at [UIUC]. I paid around $35 for my transit. I was totally unsure where I was heading. After my first win at a hackathon, I was so determined for this one too. This is my third major competition that I won the first place.” He told TechNews that his motto is “sleep is for the weak.”

Another noteworthy win was that of a sophomore computer science major Vinesh Kannan. He won the first prize from Firebase for building an analytical tool for web for developers to ask Slackbot (an programmable bot built into the Slack productivity application) about their data. “It was really great that we did an open source hackathon. I am proud that other IIT students won even though they were in a different track than I was. I am glad that everyone at IIT brought the same kind of enthusiasm.” He believes that open source software is important because one needs to learn how to contribute to others’ products, and building such software is also the best way to test competencies.

Tech-based companies that were present at the event included Fulcrum GT, Microsoft, Intelligent Medical Objects, 1517, 3Red, a16z, Akuna Capital, Amadeus, The Tech Nest, AT&T, Bitovi, BMO (Bank of Montreal), BP, Capital One, Citadel, Facebook, Firebase, Google, GitHub, Huawei, John Deere, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Namecheap, One North, !ualtrics, QuickOrder, TechPoint, State Farm, Twilio, ViaSat, United, Yahoo, and Make School.

Representatives from these companies step out of their offices during hackathons to get a meatier return on investment (ROI), to retain talents through internship offers, to prototype, and to bring in innovation by getting inspiration through young and dynamic minds. They set their Application Program Interface (API), a set of tools that is necessary during software applications, free and at HackIllinois. Microsoft even gave out up to $100 in credits for hackers to use their Azure service and rented out Microsoft Surface laptops.

Over the 36 hours of HackIllinois, hackers participated in various project fairs, workshops by Microsoft, orientations for 3D printing, lightning talks, and fun game activities like laser tag and virtual reality (VR) games. Hackers found respite from their work in all these activities. Little could they complain about sleep deprivation, either, as Microsoft provided free sleeping bags.

During the Associate Computing Machinery (ACM) general body meeting back at Illinois Tech, members who attended HackIllinois were congratulated. Mohsin Haider reminded the organization's members of the importance of these events, and encouraged Illinois Tech students to apply to them in the future.