Highlights from Open Hack Day

Note: This was originally posted on Yahoo!'s Yodel Anecdotal blog.

Open Hack Day audienceOpen Hack Day has just finished up, topping off a frantic two days of hacking with an unexpectedly large number of awards and an unexpectedly small number of leftover doughnuts. Hack days at Yahoo! have always been about taking a great idea from conception to presentation in an enormously short period of time, and the quality of concept and execution throughout from the external hackers has been inspiring.

I had planned to live-blog some of the highlights of the presentations while they were going on, but my laptop battery ran out right as they were starting up. However, for those of you following along at home…eleven hours delayed…here’s a rough transcription of my handwritten comments. A huge thanks to all of the organizers and other staff that made this Open Hack Day amazing, and an even huger thanks to the incredible hackers who came out to share these crazy awesome ideas. If you’d like a less free-form recap of some of the day’s memorable moments, you can find the overall list of hacks over at hackday.blorg.

Sean Montgomery
Yahoo! Sports

  • As 2pm rolls around, the chairs in the audience start filling up and the University Hack Day winners are ushered to the stage to kick off the presentations. It’s been an intense morning of quiet hacking and doughnut consumption to the soothing sounds of microphone checks and hack dress rehearsals.
  • Our MCs are Neal Sample and Eric Wu, who provide witty banter along with the top prize categories: Filo’s Technical Merit Award; Most Unexpected; Best User Experience; and Best Overall Hack. There will also be a variety of small prizes offered by specific groups like Y!OS and Flickr. Our esteemed judges? Cheryl Ainoa, VP of Yahoo! Media Engineering; Ash Patel, head of our Audience division; Rashmi Sinha, CEO of SlideShare; David Filo, co-founder and Chief Yahoo; Jeff Clavier, investor extraordinaire; Matt Mullenweg, founder of WordPress; and Om Malik, CEO of GigaOm.
  • Before the presentations began, the Georgia Tech hacker, Roger Pincombe, cozied up to the judges by handing them Xbox games and hardcover books for his hack, DialPrice. It’s a phone interface for comparative shopping that’ll spit back user ratings, price ranges, and local availability for items that you identify by their UPC code, and it comes with a fun map-based visualization to see which items people are looking at around the country. The Yahoo! Shopping API wasn’t mature enough to be used when the hack was initially developed, so all of the data is coming from Goo…er, I mean, “Oogle” Product Search.
  • Demograph, by Mattt Thompson of CMU, maps out congressional districts for any given location and also provided the first of several Sarah Palin references throughout the day.
  • In a rather bold move, Michael Fischer of Stanford “open-sourced” his FlickrFuse hack to the audience — any changes that the hackers in the audience submitted would immediately be reflected back in the actual application. The results were surprisingly non-disastrous.
  • If you want to succeed, try adding “Yahoo!” to your hack name! Consequently, Will Duff of UIUC presented not just “Pages”, but instead the much classier “Yahoo! Pages”, a very polished inline WYSIWYG page editor layered on top of YUI components that he used to quickly throw together an extremely passable imitation of the one of the YUI documentation pages.
  • Another thing to keep in mind is that you should always have a contingency plan in case something goes horribly wrong with your presentation. The Psychic Hotline hack, a voice-operated interface to the 20 Questions game put together by Ryan Luecke, Gabor Angeli, and Stewart He of Berkeley, ran into some technical difficulties early on and looked dead in the water. However, the guys quickly switched gears to their backup hack, a hand-made electric guitar on which you would play notes by completing circuits with a copper wire “pick”. While Ryan distracted the crowd with his rendition of “Seven Nation Army” and his unfamiliarity with “Freebird”, the other guys were able to sort out the issues with the Psychic Hotline and start the presentation over again. This time, it went off without a hitch in guessing that the audience had picked “robot” as their noun, except for when Neal was privately thinking about a Null Pointer Exception and they got that instead.
  • One issue with the 90 second time limit for hack presentations is that good hacks can get cut short (by our “Girl Talk” cutoff music) and we’ll all miss out on hearing about a really cool idea. However, it does force hackers to really get to the essence of their project without all of the frill, and if the idea is powerful enough, it’ll still grab people.
  • Ganzbot, a feed-reading robot hacked together by Jeremy Gillick, is perhaps the most disturbing way possible that I can imagine receiving my stock and weather information as I wake up in the morning.
  • Usually, FireEagle is supposed to passively say where you are, once you’ve settled down there. Weather Sets, by Leah Culver and Ariel Waldman, does the opposite in using FireEagle to urge you to go somewhere else, by setting up a location-based game where you win by collecting sets of colored cards based on local weather and Flickr photos.
  • Be careful when you solicit suggestions from the audience for, say, a pair of random search query terms. The first suggestion I heard shouted out in reponse — “bacon fiesta” — was strangely passed over in favor of “hack day”.
  • Mo Kakwan, something of an Open Hack Day celebrity thanks to his hilarious presentation two years ago, hit it out of the park one more time with his Virtual Moshpit. It’s hard to describe this one without video, so hopefully that’ll be forthcoming shortly. The best I can say is that there was girlish screaming of “Girl Talk!”, physics-based stick figure animations, and Mo’s trademark delivery, all in one monumentally funny package.
  • The trio of travel/location oriented hacks that followed really stood out to me. TripIt provided one of the coolest Open Mail integrations with an application that would allow you to drag over any flight/hotel confirmation email in your Inbox and automatically convert it into a detailed trip record in their system. Jesse Baird’s Cell Phone Signal Tracker and Where Are My Drivers, by Wilson Sheldon and Kelvin Ling, both used FireEagle to great effect, the former allowing you to wander around and map out your cell phone signal strength in a region and the latter letting a restaurant keep track of the location of any of their delivery folk to make it easier to reroute or redistribute resources.
  • What’s warm and sleeps with you every night? For Mark Rosetta, it’s not his girlfriend, but rather his laptop. But, as he states, both seem to go from hot to cold entirely randomly. He can fix one of those, however, by using iHeater, which is a page of embedded fireplace videos from YouTube that’ll peg your CPU and subsequently overheat your laptop. Future plans include 3D rendering and further de-optimizations
  • The final hack, Hack #47, was also one of the most amusing. Niels Joubert and Greg Schechter noticed at the last minute that no one had submitted a SearchMonkey hack, and saw an opportunity. So, Niels closed out the presentations with Speedhack: Writing a SearchMonkey Hack in 90 Seconds, where he spent his 90 seconds on stage actually creating a SearchMonkey enhanced result on the fly. It took two tries due to inaccurate clicking, network latency, missing semicolons, and misleading shouted suggestions from the audience, but we were eventually rewarded with a functional vCard-based enhanced result for YouTube videos. And Niels and Greg were also rewarded with prizes equal in value to the effort they put into their hack — two mint-condition Hack #48 signs.

Given such a high-quality and enjoyable round of presentations, it was inevitable that the judges would relent and offer up more prizes to compensate. Nonetheless, the fact that we handed out nearly 25 prizes altogether, from Flash documentation wall posters to hand-held video cameras, was surprising and gratifying. You can see the list of all of the winners here, and we’ll surely have some sort of grand recap when the official Yodel bloggers get back. For now, thank you again to everyone who came out and supported or participated in this great event, and keep on hacking!