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Coding, coffee, and concrete innovation

Montreal Hackathon brings techies together for a weekend of program development

There is a greystone house that sits on the corner of Clark and Sherbrooke. A can of cigarette butts rests on its front stoop, and a sign that indicates free wifi in the window. This is the Notman house, and, on Saturday September 30, techies – students and professionals alike – spent 10 hours programming in the Ikea-carpeted living room for the Hackathon.

The event, co-hosted by Montreal group Startupifier and the McGill group Tech Think Tank, invited the Montreal community to come together to develop web applications. After a brainstorming session on Friday night, programmers and designers formed ten teams of two to five people. They reconvened on Saturday at 9 a.m. to start their day of developing.

Marc Beaupre, current member of Startupifier and former McGill student, and his team met each other at the event pitch session the previous Friday night. The application that they were working on was called, “Snap to Vote,” which he described as a “+1 button for the real world.” (In Facebook language, that’s a “like” button.) The app allows people to print out QR codes – those futuristic 2-D barcode squares that you may have seen – and stick them on things. This allows smartphone users to snap a picture of the barcode, thus registering a vote for that object, whatever it is. Beaupre explained that the Hackathon provides a space to have fun and explore a project: “You pare your idea down to the core; figure out the central utility, so that you can complete it on time.” The event is judged by a panel comprised of individuals from various Montreal startups. At the end of the event Snap to Vote won the title of “Most Accomplished in a Single Day.”

Other groups went into the coding session with a fully-formed team already assembled. Wikinotes was one such group, and their plan was to revamp their existing McGill note sharing site with a special focus on making the site more accessible for all students to share lecture notes, since, right now, it’s mostly admins that contribute. They started the project one year ago, and it originally ran on free Wikipedia-style software, beginning as a way for them to share notes for a couple of courses that the group members had in common.  They ended up snagging the title “Good Citizen Award,” along with a spot in the top three, an honour that also rewarded them with free web hosting services. The group members said that they welcomed the opportunity to spend ten straight hours working on their site, and drinking free coffee. Although they’ve come up against some resistance from the administration – particularly with regards to copyrighted material from course lectures – they were all smiles when I spoke to them a few days after their win, explaining that it was nice to get recognition from the judges for their work. “We feel that students should be able to share notes and help each other.” “We believe that information should be free, and collaboration should be possible,” says Wendy Liu, a U2 math and computer science student.

Tech Think Tank was co-founded last spring by Jon Volkmar, a U3 Computer science student at McGill. Volkmar described the group’s purpose as gathering students interested in technology at McGill to collaborate on events like the Hackathon, and even to explore projects beyond McGill. Volkmar’s group worked on a Facebook game application called, “Coolspace,” which received a nod for “Most Creative.”

“You learn a lot of stuff that you won’t learn in school,” Volkmar says of events like the Hackathon. Software programming is something he plans on pursuing once he finishes school, an ability proven by his internship at Microsoft this past summer. He describes it as a surreal experience – navigating the infrastructure of such a huge organization was nothing like the start-up like environment at the Notman house. Volkmar added, “I find the idea of bringing up your own project that means a lot to you, and that you have a lot of input and control over, and that really builds community to be a really attractive idea. But there’s good things about working for corporations also.”


The next Hackathon will be hosted at the Notman house on January 20 to 21, 2011. 

Snap to vote can be found at Learn more about Tech Think Tank at Email to learn more about or colloborate with the Wikinotes team.