Twenty-six hours into WesHack2.0, the second Wesleyan student hackathon, the creative team behind WesPartyMap had just installed a feedback loop. Because of this innovation, an anonymous comment box now allows users to leave messages on the website, which displays an interactive map of campus sprinkled with red and yellow dots.
“It’s a heat map of where people are,” explained Max Dietz ’16, clicking on one of the dots to reveal a graph charting how many people had been in the area over the past two hours.
The web application passively collects location data from corresponding iPhone and Android apps, which the team of Dietz, Sam Giagtzoglou ’16, and Jack Lashner ’16 also created.
“One of the biggest issues I’ve had on campus so far, especially in the winter, is that you’ll hear about a few parties, and you’ll show up and maybe no one’s there, or you don’t know the one to go to,” Dietz said.
Enter WesPartyMaps. If enough students download the app and frequent the website, the program could provide a real-time display of not only where people are partying on campus, but also of just how good those parties are. It’s a technology-centric solution to a problem, but, just like the school’s tech community as a whole, its success hinges completely on awareness and participation.
Wesleyan’s sizable and active tech community is one of its best-kept secrets. Despite its motivated student body and a large alumni network in the digital media industry—a mafia to rival those of the music and film communities—the ample resources and opportunities here for creative technological innovation are often overlooked.
Exposing the Wires
WesHack seeks to remedy this situation. Scrambled together during Senior Week last May by Evan Carmi ’13, Julian Applebaum ’13, and Anastasios Germanidis ’13, the student group came forward with the original goal of providing a collaborative outlet for the campus’ many underutilized computer science (CS) enthusiasts.
“I think there’s a lot of CS talent on campus, but people don’t really know about CS even existing,” said Carmi, who devised the idea of hosting a student hackathon. “So I thought it would be a really good way to raise awareness for applied programming, like creating websites, rather than the theoretical study of computer science as a discipline.”
Carmi, who currently works as a software engineer at Brewster.com, said the computer science major is best at teaching fundamentals, covering mostly the theoretical framework and lower-level programming that make up the discipline. For developing the skills needed to build applications, make websites, and be a well-rounded developer or engineer, Carmi said that students need to find activities on the side to supplement their in-class learning.
The Hackathon is meant to provide just that. Isolating three teams of students in the basement of the Exley Science Center, the Hackathon at the end of last year challenged each team to create, design, code, and complete a Wesleyan-themed web app within 36 hours. This year, the organizers extended the competition from 36 hours to 48, with 12 hours of mandatory team rest.
Due to the last-minute nature of its creation, WesHack2.0 remained rather insular, and because most of the participants graduated following the Senior Week Hackathon, the group’s projects then fell to the wayside. Makaela Kingsley ’98, Director of the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship, said that WesHack is aiming higher for the future.
“I think the first Hackathon and even this one, for the most part, are seen as incubator experiences for students to build their skills and get their feet wet,” Kingsley said. “As time goes on, though, maybe that will shift. Maybe these will be looked at as entrepreneurial experiences where the best thing that’s built becomes a venture of its own, whether it’s an internal Wesleyan venture or an external one.”
WesHack expanded its options this time around by making the Hackathon part of a multi-day-long technology conference, with a bootcamp organized for Saturday, Sept. 7 that sought to introduce the concepts, terminology, and recent advancements of the tech world to the average student.
By showcasing the startups and technological accomplishments of students and alumni, especially of those coming from outside the CS major, Dietz and Kingsley hope WesHack will reveal the tech community to be an inclusive place and maybe even inspire current students to pursue ventures of their own.
As such, said Kwaku Akoi ’14, the Hackathon is far from being the end of the University tech community’s ambitions. Rather, it’s a jumping-off point.
“It’s out of things like this that something that will start as a very simple idea blows up to become somebody’s life-long project,” Akoi said.
“The question is,” Akoi asked, “who do we make software for?”
For the Hackathon competitors, the answer to that question is fellow students. According to the event’s organizers, apps should make life at school more fun, more efficient, and more productive.
HalfBagel, the team of Cumhur Korkut ’17, Tyler Harden ’17, Wei Wang ’15, and Arthur Burkart ’14, attempts to simplify the process of room selection. By assembling a database of the campus’ residence halls, program houses, and woodframes, HalfBagel allows users to search locations, read about each dorm, create housing groups, and register selections.
But Harden said Wesleyan doesn’t make compiling this information an easy task. Although specifications about houses can be gathered from the Residential Life website, finding residence hall specifications requires searching through PDF files.
“For about three hours last night, I was manually entering the room data,” Harden said during the Hackathon.
WesHappening, composed of Aaron Plave ’15, Brian Gapinski ’14, and Justin Raymond ’14, encountered similar problems when creating its map of where events occur on campus. The program pulls listings from the University’s official calendar and Wesleying’s RSS feed, but because formatting on the student blog is not standardized, it required more hands-on tweaking.
“I’m trying to piece it all together,” Plave said, flashing his Hackathon computer screen the middle finger.
Plave explained that although he attended the last Hackathon, he did not enter an app. Kingsley said that pushing those background contributors into the forefront, especially encouraging freshmen to join, was a goal of this year’s Hackathon.
“We want second-string and third-string people to show up,” Kingsley noted.
Dietz said that in projects like these, nobody is unhelpful: whether they’re giving design suggestions or contributing graphics, non-coders provide as much strength to a team as programmers.
“People shouldn’t put themselves down about how much they know about technology,” Dietz said. “I think during the course of a competition like this, you can surprise yourself with what you’re capable of.”
The apps created this time around also mark a departure for the Hackathon in that they can run mostly independently of University support. WesHappening’s website is still automatically updating each day’s events, and an app like WesPartyMap can run indefinitely.
“It’s definitely fun, even if it’s tiring,” Korkut said.
Designing for People
One floor above the Hackathon, Kingsley led a student panel on entrepreneurship, showcasing the work of four current students who have already created something and want to encourage others to do the same.
To an audience of over 50 people in Tishler Lecture Hall, Kingsley’s panel of students described their startups: a Yelp-like application to trace diasporic businesses; WES2, the Wesleyan Entrepreurship Society; Germinal Fund, a nonprofit that gives microloans to Middletown businesses; and JóòMah, a job-posting platform for sub-Saharan Africa.
According to both student and alumni entrepreneurs, Wesleyan’s diversity of backgrounds and interests provides just the space for creative ideas to become discussed and implemented.
“I knew from the start that for this to be viable, I had to bring together different people with different viewpoints,” said Ted Shabecoff ’16, CEO of the Germinal Fund.
Lisa Sy ’13, who took part in last year’s Hackathon and works now as a product designer at the app consultancy firm thoughtbot, inc., said that working with other students and alumni developed her confidence in the tech field.
Sy majored in American Studies, rather than computer science or art, the fields in which she now works. That’s not uncommon in the university’s tech community, and members argue that this differentiates the university from other schools.
“When I first started learning design and tech stuff, I didn’t think I was good enough: I was not a CS major, I had little programming experience, and I don’t like math,” Sy wrote. “In some ways, I’m glad I wasn’t any of those things. The more puzzles I solved, the more gratification I gained, and thus, the more motivated I was to continue. The thing that pushed me the most was perhaps my own determination to change the status quo and to prove to myself that your major does not dictate what you do with your life.”
Being a designer, Sy said, is about understanding people and observing problems from various perspectives. According to Kingsley, the liberal arts curriculum helps create that skillset.
“Human-centric design is the name of the game in the tech world now, and Wesleyan students have an edge because of our interdisciplinary nature,” Kingsley said.
“What about Wesleyan made it likely for us to end up in technology and startups and digital media?” asked Jake Levine ’08 in a recent interview with Wesleying. “The best explanation that I can come up with is that Wesleyan students are creative; they like to build things and make things that don’t look like what already exists; they like challenging existing institutions and companies and ways of doing things, and they like doing so with personality and with a strong sense of where they see themselves in the world.”
Levine is the general manger of Digg and the inventor of the apps Breakup and Makeup Text, and he is excited by the proliferation of digital media interest at the university. He also understands the difficulty of breaking into the business, and he said he wants to help his fellow creators.
“So much of the industry that I’m in is inaccessible by way of a textbook or by way of a blog post,” Levine told The Argus.
That’s true especially for Levine himself: after double majoring in the College of Social Studies (CSS) and economics, he went into investment banking for a year before realizing the tech world, in which he grew interested during his junior year, was where his heart was set.
He began talking to alumni and found that graduates in the tech world not only were numerous, but that their conversations and advice gave him an invaluable boost.
“I realized there was an opportunity to bring these people together,” Levine said. “They had worked together and had no idea they shared the same alma mater.”
Levine spotted an opportunity to not only spread awareness, but to provide real support to interested members of the University community. His inquiries resulted in the creation of Digital Wesleyan, a group of alumni and current students involved in digital media.
Beginning as simply a mailing list, Digital Wesleyan grew into a collection of over one thousand contacts, organizing alumni events in New York City and on the West Coast with the help of Alex Rosen ’08 and Tim Devane ’09, all for the purpose of networking.
“I wanted others to know that there were these resources and people who were willing to help and give their time,” Levine said.
This past year, Digital Wesleyan looked to extend its reach into helping current students. The group sponsored a bus trip of students to New York City for a meet-and-greet of tech alumni and even raised money to sponsor three summer internships with tech startups.
Levine encourages students to simply talk to alumni about their jobs and begin building and learning on their own time.
“The message I give to all students is that however terrifying you think computer science is, however difficult or impossible it is, you’re totally wrong,” Levine said. “It’s easily understandable; it just takes time, and you have to put the energy into it, but it pays incredible dividends.”
For the members of WesHack, all the resources they need to begin working exist at the University already.
Outside of the Computer Science Department, both Dietz and Akoi work for Instructional Media Services (IMS), which plays a large part in developing and promoting the use of technology as an integral part of education. The program currently employs around 80 students, nine of whom are programmers. And the experience is crucial.
“If you want to sit down and get your hands dirty, IMS is the place to go,” Dietz said.
Students like Dietz develop innovative technologies for everyday use, including the touchscreen computers found in many classrooms.
“It’s really something that’s really beautiful to see, as over the years, we’ve seen so many changes, so many improvements to the way classroom technology works,” Aoki said. “It’s phenomenal to believe it’s students who do this.”
Information Technology Services Specialist Robert Christensen said his program provides an education supplemental to academics, especially in computer science.
“I wanted to create an environment where kids could learn, kids could create, and kids could explore, get practical programming experience,” Christensen said. “They allow us to have a lot more dexterity in solving our problems.”
Christensen said the CS major works essentially as a feeder system into IMS, although he would like a closer partnership with the department because he sees the two as mutually beneficial.
“A lot of CS students learn theory, which is not a bad thing, but if you’re not teaching yourself practical things at the same time, you can essentially graduate not knowing anything,” Christensen said.
IMS provides those hands-on programming skills to students while benefiting from their help with its many on-campus responsibilities. And Christensen said that non-CS majors also thrive in IMS in non-programming capacities, accumulating managerial experience while being encouraged to pick up CS skills on the side.
In the larger tech scene, students less interested in the technical side of digital media still make important contributions.
Sy’s passion for graphic design and typography also found a home at the university. Along with Carlos Sanchez ’14, she began TypeClub, a student-run design consultancy with clients ranging from the Patricelli Center and ResLife to the undergraduate Wesleyan Consulting Group.
For people like Sy, all aspects of the tech world offer extensions of Wesleyan’s devotion to social justice and innovation.
“I think it is important to spread the awareness that technology is just another platform on which to affect social change just as healthcare, business, education, public policy, etc. are,” Sy wrote. “… I’d say that my entire experience and the community here at Wesleyan propelled me to this path.”
Marketing the Product
Back in Exley, each Hackathon team has three and a half hours to present its work in progress. The impending deadline puts the students in the room in an odd mood.
Someone throws a pool noodle across the room; people start yelling when they realize the video livestream is down; everyone picks at food lying around, brought in for free by the event’s sponsors.
Harden stands in front of Exley, on the sidewalk in the sunlight, a bag of Doritos in his hand.
“I haven’t been outside in eight or nine hours,” he said. “I’m not normally like this.”
But the project showcase provides incentive to get to work, and more quickly. It’s a chance to bridge the gap between the programmers and the public for whom they are creating.
“That’s part of the reason we created this showcase, so people actually get to see and hear from the programmers themselves what they’ve been working on, and for people to put in a vote on what their choice of app is,” Dietz said. “We’re trying to make it as interactive as possible. The sort of thing where people get to have a voice with the kinds of technology that’s been created for Wesleyan students, by Wesleyan students, on campus.”
Wesleyan’s digital media network acts as a large-scale feedback loop. The University and its alumni provide opportunities for students to innovate, collaborating to solve problems with other students, who in turn provide opportunities for their peers.
According to people like Kingsley and Sy, every student is a potential contributor.
“The critical analysis and research skills we get from our Wesleyan education are the foundation,” Sy said. “Technology is just the implementation.”
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