The Bangalore Hack U team held 4 successful hack day events in engineering colleges across India and it was time to bring Hack U to post graduate and PhD students. And what better place to start than IISc Bangalore. Yahoo! Bangalore Labs has been doing some great research work. In many internal hack days, some really cool demos have come out of the Research teams. So the focus of IISc Hack U was to encourage hardcore research students to think about a problem and solve it in 24 hours. The Hack day started on 25th Jan 2010 and ended on 26th Jan 2010. Since the focus was more on research topics, the Yahoo! Hack U team to IISc was beefed up with research engineers/scientists from the Yahoo! Bangalore Labs team who delivered talks on some of the work they have been doing. As a bonus, we had Malcolm Slaney, a senior research scientist visiting us from Yahoo! headquarters who was more than willing to participate in the event.
After a welcome by Jamie and Chelliah, the intro session was kicked off by a Yahoo! search experience engineer from Sunnyvale, Jeremey Hubert. His talk, titled "Overview of rapid prototyping your ideas using Yahoo! APIs" showed students how cool things can be built quickly, and how to present all the smart code with a quick and clean interface. After his talk, a formal intro and welcome was given by IISC Computer Science & Automation Department chairman, Y. Narahari. He urged his students to build applications that are radical and game-changing.
After a short tea break, Malcolm presented his take on hacking. For me, his talk was the highlight of the evening. He passionately spoke about how he always loved putting things together quickly just to prove that great things can be done quickly with the right attitude and interest. He showed some of his work on machine learning and how he was part of a team that won an internal hack event in Yahoo!. He emphasized that one person may not be good in everything, but if you get the right mix of people, solving a problem would be much more fun and easy. He showed his winning hack called "Evil Twin", which matched the face in an uploaded photo with a face on a photo on the internet.
Next came a technical panel on research and hacks, headed by Subhajit Sanyal of the search sciences team and Arnab Nandi from Geo Technologies. Jeyashankher, another Yahoo! Labs engineer joined in to speak about innovation in Yahoo! Search. Subhajit spoke about his experiences in Yahoo! internal hack days. They urged the students to think about practical applications of their research and actually implement a prototype of the same. The goal was to involve the students in coming up with ideas and help them decide what to do in the Hack event. After this session, I did my customary YQL and Pipes talk, because these are the quintessential hack tools and among the coolest services on Yahoo! Developer Network.
The lucky IISc students got 4 days to think about their hacks before the formal event. On the day of, there were a few more talks by Yahoos. Vipul Agarwal spoke about "Goldrush" which was an internal hack day winner, Ashwin Tengli spoke about a Yahoo! Search project and Mithun Ashok on spoke about the BOSS APIs. By this time, the students were really charged up. The students really got into the idea of hacking. Earlier, I had provoked them to actually solve something that was troubling them, because that is usually a good place to start for a Hack idea. Some choose to pick up parts of their academic projects. Others were busy looking at the various public APIs on the Internet, including Yahoo!'s offering.
Everyone thought that the IISc HackU stood out in terms of average quality of the problems addressed. Interestingly, the final hack ideas and winning hacks were surprisingly close to industry trends in terms of building more machine intelligence to recognize and solve ambiguously defined problems we come across almost daily.
The Hack "Enrich" was a one-man effort to take email beyond boring text, to complete expression of mood that highlighted the non-articulated themes in the email communication. The email being sent/received was correlated to the sender/receiver's Twitter messages and term extractor APIs were used to extract terms that depicted "mood". A mood categorizer showed the sender's mood when the mail was sent and tried to analyze the tone of the reply being sent.
"What'sZat" was another one-person hack that tried to solve the problem around search Intent. The domain of the hack was restricted to partial recall of movies by actor, scene, or theme. For a person who wants information, but does not know what exactly to search for, this hack showed promise in terms of what really is a meaningful search interface.
A three member team delivered "Geo-targetted ads on Yahoo! Messenger". It was nice to see someone make an exact HTML replica of the Yahoo! IM interface. Our Evangelist, Arnab Nandi simply loved it this hack! He said this was real-time user generated content being correlated and tracked for some real understanding by ad-serving machines.
Apart from the winning hacks, a bunch of other hack ideas took the volunteers from the Yahoo! Labs and evangelists by surprise. One honorable mention: the hack titled "WeUs" was not completed. Had it been complete, it could have given Google SideWiki some real stiff challenge. Another hack tried to auto-organize images based on how similar a given image is with a current set of images. The working demo automatically assigned the image into specific folders. This was one of my favorites. This could be a useful addition to a Flickr photo upload tool, that could auto tag Flickr photos the moment they are ready to upload.
Overall, the ideas were impressive. The volunteers had to work overnight to refine their ideas and gain some help with tools on the web. The interesting thing was that the students conceptualized many wonderful things, right from local bus routing, image recognition, image parsing, and machine learning. Many hack ideas were so persuasive that the Y! volunteers jumped in to help refine them and put them in context. The energy was there all through the night (the midnight snacks of hot samosas was really appreciated), despite the students being far away in the hostel. Some of the serious hackers stayed back in the hard comfort of the CSA building to be close to the Yahoos and pick their brains whenever needed.
One of the professors there asked if they wanted to have Hack U again next year, to which all students cheered. Another Hack U success in India.
Check out the pictures of the fun times at the event.
YDN Evangelist, Web Developer