On 30st of November - St. Andrews Day - the European University Hack Team went from London to Scotland to pick the winners of the Dundee University Hack Program.
All in all the Scottish students came up with 18 hacks to woo both the judges and the professors - as the European University hack is a bit different than the US counterpart.
Contrary to the US University Hack Days, the European counterpart is part of the students course deliveries which means the hackers get a month time to create their hack. The reason is to give them time to delve deeper into unknown territory and technologies and integrate with their coursework.
Another difference is that the students dont get a fixed time to present their hacks. Instead, each hack team stays with a computer and shows their hacks to all the other teams and the judges alike. The judges walk around looking at one hack after the other, making their notes and generally chat about the issues the students faced and the solutions they came up with. It is not as much about the hack but also about the steps and pains the students went through to get there in the end.
After three hours of going through the 18 hacks the judges deliberated for a while and came up with the following winners:
Dundee Hack Program winners 2007:
Best Hack: flY! by Pamela Phelan,Ha Trinh, Mark Zarb
flY! is a Yahoo Messenger Plugin that allows for collaborative working on text documents. The team used the YUI Rich Text Editor to allow people to upload a file into Messenger and see and edit it in parallel.
The judges were especially impressed with the usefulness of this hack. It is based on a common problem of students: work on a text document together without getting out of sync. The team worked amazingly well together and complimented each other in delivering the hack. Just by looking at the hack we already came up with more use cases for it, for example taking notes in messenger conferences.
A very nice touch was that the team was genuinely shocked to have won and had to look at the name of the hack twice before standing up and receiving their prices.
Most Useful Hack: Low Fat Mail by Alex Mason
Low Fat Mail is a Yahoo! Mail client inside a Messenger Plugin. Alex was annoyed with needing to open a browser every time he got a new email and wondered if there isnt a way to read and write emails without leaving Messenger. He then used the BBAuth API to embed a light email reader and editor into messenger.
The judges really loved the idea of scratching the developers itch solving a problem that the hacker found annoying and the smooth integration of the two systems. Want to send an email to one of your contacts? Just click their name and start writing!
Novel Idea: LinkSafe by Colin Gourlay
LinkSafe is a Yahoo! Messenger Plugin that took a problem that we all face: you are chatting with someone, he or she sends you a link and you have no clue if it is safe to click it or not. Is it something you shouldnt look at in the office? Is it a phishing attempt? Is it a virus? LinkSafe helps you find out what is going on by analyzing links sent to you in a Messenger window and showing a preview of what the links target looks like in another window. It also flags up when the link is an executable file or archive and tells you to be wary.
The judges were impressed with the usefulness of the idea as it could be backed up by black and white lists and even be a child safety filter. Furthermore the interface was very smooth it had a welcome screen explaining what it is, featured help information and generally worked like a charm.
Honorable Mention: Last.fm Widget by Gordon Stephen
The Last.fm widget is exactly what it says on the tin: a Yahoo! Widget that interacts with your last.fm behaviour. The widget recognizes your last played song or allows you to pick from several playlists, pulls in information about the band, the song and the album and displays it in the widget. It also allows you to browse other peoples playlists and get information about their music.
The judges were impressed with the amount of effort Gordon put into finding the right information, filtering the playlists to the data he wanted to show and the fun the widget brings to the user. You do not only listen to your favourite music, but also find out about the bands, see them and get information that would lead you to other music, concerts and people.
And the other winners:
Of course all the hackers were winners in one way or another. Talking to the students we found out that a lot of them learnt about dealing with new languages and build something they wanted to have anyways. We also learnt about opportunities for us to improve documentation of our products and got the chance to connect hackers with third party companies to improve their APIs or explain why it would be a good idea to offer one screen-scraping is just not fun.
Taking the celebrations in stride
With the lucky coincidence of the hack judging happening on St.Andrews day we grabbed the opportunity of the whole university partying and went to the student union to celebrate until the wee hours sharing more information, drinks and food.
Well more than likely be back next year and hope that more universities will see this program as an opportunity to give students something more to show on their CV than a great university degree once they go out into the market.