(Photos: Chris Becker)
Christopher Becker | January 10, 2013
Little Nerds in the Big City: A Reflection on the Foursquare Hackathon
This past Saturday, as I was running through the Times Square subway station trying to catch an R train heading downtown, I was getting more and more excited for the day’s events. Even though my good friend Joe and I woke up at 4:30 a.m. and caught the first train from Philadelphia to New York City, we were fully awake and as excited as ever.
Saturday, January 5th marked Foursquare’s second-ever API hackathon. The company opened the doors to its New York and San Francisco offices and invited developers from around the world.
The Scene at Foursquare
For those who don’t know, a hackathon is a gathering of technologically-inclined individuals with one common goal: to build a web app, mobile app, or anything of the sort. The people can range from classically-trained computer science wizards, to web developers, to graphic designers. Teams are formed and everyone begins working on a project. Hackathons can last anywhere from a few hours to a few straight days!
In the case of the Foursquare Hackathon, there was only one rule: use Foursquare in your app.
After Joe and I arrived and signed in, we immediately headed towards the main room. The hackathon was being held in Foursquare’s cafeteria, named “Fat Denny’s” after the company’s founder, Dennis Crowley. The place was packed! There were over 150 people in attendance in NYC. Everyone was seated at the picnic tables and chatting with the other developers in the room.
After welcoming us to the hackathon, one of the Foursquare engineers gave us a quick presentation about the API, and the cool stuff that we could build on top of it. He then introduced other local developers that gave us presentations about their own services. Most notably, the Twilio developer representative wrote an application live on stage that texted everybody in the room and created a conference call. Each developer evangelist encouraged us to integrate his or her service into our application, and some even gave away prizes for the most creative idea.
The presentations concluded, and it was time to start hacking! The microphone on stage was open to anyone that wanted to pitch an idea, or to pitch themselves in hopes of finding a team to work with. Joe and I formed a team, and began chatting with the other teams at our table to brainstorm some ideas.
Eight Hours of Programming Later…
Joe and I had finished the prototype version of our application. It was messy, and the code was practically duct-taped together, but it worked.
We developed the idea for a Foursquare-connected application that would “ping” the user with a list of open Wi-Fi networks in their area after they checked into a venue. If there wasn’t one in the database, our app would ask the user to look and see if one was available. This idea came from Joe’s and my constant quest to find good cell service in the city. Even though our app wasn’t anything terribly revolutionary, Joe and I were pretty proud of our creation that we made at our first hackathon.
The ideas generated at the hackathon were truly remarkable. There were developers that were not only building their own apps, but working for other teams as well. The developer next to us had a hilarious and useful idea for an app that informed users of the quality of the bathrooms at the venue that they’ve checked into. Early in the afternoon, he had a fully working prototype and was already adding new venues to his database. Joe even caught him peeking into the Foursquare bathrooms and adding the info to his app! (Andy, if you’re reading this, I can’t wait to install the final version of your app and never see a crappy bathroom again.)
Some ideas involved a fun proof of concept. One developer created a Weasley Whereabouts clock (based on the one found in the Harry Potter series) that would dynamically move the clock hands to tell you where your friends have checked in. The user interface looked exactly like the magical clock that sat in the Weasleys’ living room. This whimsical application didn’t serve any particular purpose, but it didn’t matter. It was still a fantastic app built on the Foursquare API.
As Joe and I stuffed our faces with Shake Shack burgers for dinner at the end of the day, we reflected on how awesome our experience was. We were surrounded by passionate developers that were building awesome applications. They were helpful enough to answer questions that we had, and we answered questions that they had.
Each person brought a unique perspective to the table, and was willing to share their expertise with the group. In the end, everyone left with more knowledge, and with something that didn’t exist twelve hours prior.
And that’s what a hackathon is all about.
Have you ever participated in a hackathon? What were the highlights? Share your experience in the comments section below!