Report from University of Waterloo Hack Day

Editor's note: I've been asked to lead with a special thanks to IMPACT consulting group who helped plan, promote, and organize the Waterloo events and Professor Bill Bishop, who served as a guest judge. Also a shout-out to Yahoo! Canada, and the developers who came out in force from the Toronto office, including Ambles Kwok, an occasional YDN blogger, who also helped out as a judge.

The Waterloo University Hack Day has finished. We had a glorious 24 hours of hacking where Search Monkey tech lead Paul Tarjan, and I helped students with CSS, BluePrint, BOSS, YUI, PHP, Java, SearchMonkey, XSLT, SQL, and lots of Javascript questions. We hacked alongside the students, making a webpage(1) which shows all your open socket connections on a map. See the links section at the bottom of this post for links to most of the hacks mentioned.

The real stars were the students. Many of the teams lasted the full 24 hours. We camped out in the lounge on the 3rd floor of the Math building. Pasta for dinner, then a midnight pizza delivery along with more Twizzlers than anybody should ever eat. Breakfast, then lunch, and before you knew it the deadline was on us. There was a lot of last-minute hacking to get the hacks to a presentable state and in the end the quality of all the hacks presented was amazing.

University of Waterloo - Where's Rasmus?
Photo Credit Jamie Lockwood

Like the hack day at UIUC last week we had special categories for BluePrint, BOSS, and SearchMonkey along with our top-3 overall prizes. Unfortunately we can't give prizes to everyone. A few of my personal favourites didn't end up winning prizes: The Tiny Vector Graphics(2) editor was one. That slick little vector language brought back memories of Logo and Turtle for me and it is great fun to play with it. Try it out. I also liked the ideas in the CalendrViewr2.0Beta hack(3). Are they perhaps trying to poke a little fun at Web product names, numbers, and everlasting beta cycles with that name? MaybeNotSpam presented an interesting way to give our sent messages that ended up in someone's spam folder on Yahoo Mail or GMail a second chance to be moved back to the Inbox. In the process of building this hack, Holden caused a bit of a stir with his Slashdot posting on how the Zimbra Desktop client communicates with the Yahoo IMAP server. And Edgar A. Bering gave us a lesson in quantum computing and Scheme that I didn't grasp a word of, but
was fascinating nonetheless.

Other highlights included a mobile RSS reader written using the BluePrint API called Feedy! and a Web directory index enhancer simply called DIR. We also saw another stellar batch of SearchMonkey apps: the simplest and funniest being the "Canada Eh?" app that added an "Eh?" to the end of all Canadian URLs. A combination of IMDB, Torrent searches, and apps along with a app, a WorldOfWarcraft app(4), and a nice Map Infobar with driving directions from your geoip-located location.

In the end we had to pick some winners. In the BOSS category, we liked Clustr(5) by Alex Leong, Nick Engelking, Danielle Alessio, and Josh Lamontagne. It does a number of BOSS searches to determine the relationship between search terms, finds images to represent each and gives you a graphical cluster where the size of the images and the distances between them indicate correlation between them.

In the BluePrint category, we chose Mobill(6) by Chong Su, Toshio Wang, Carol Yu, and Jason Cham. It keeps track of your expenses, giving you some nice sorting and graphical visualization tools right on your phone. Also included: a Web service where you can download your expenses into a spreadsheet.

In the SearchMonkey category, we chose Jeff Pound's API Monkey app(7). It is able to provide language-specific reference help for a number of languages. And it does a really nice job of showing the most relevant parts of the various reference docs. He did a cute hack to pull out the query string and found a bug in our URL parsing.

Overall third place went to a friend-visualizer hack called Globami(8) by 1st-year student Renaud Bourassa. It let you easily see where anybody's friends are on a couple of networks either in a nice Web UI or in a SearchMonkey Infobar.

Second place went to Flare(9) by Michael Campagnaro and Niall Wingham. Flare is a semantic markup tool written in JavaScript. Anything that helps push the Web towards more semantic markup is important. Flare currently only supports RDFa, but I really hope Michael and Niall continue working on it and add eRDF and all the popular microformats to it. They parsed the vocaulary file and pulled out the definitions, which in theory could let a user apply it to any arbitrary vocabulary. I can see myself using this constantly to go back and fix my Web content
written before I became semantically enlightened.

And finally, the first overall prize went to an impressive hack by Addy Cameron-Huff named HackDemocracy(10). Addy managed to organize an incredible amount of data and put an easy-to-use and very polished UI on top of it. In the end what we get is an incredible political research tool that allows us to dig into how your local MP has represented you by looking at what he/she has said on-record in Parliament. You can see see the excerpt about the topic you care about or the entire speech. You can also see how the parties stand on issues you care about based on how often they talk about those issues. And finally he added a simple RSS API for you to fetch the text of speeches by topic to let you build off of his hard data mining work.

University of Waterloo Hack Kickoff
Photo Credit Jamie Lockwood

I graduated from Waterloo 15 years ago. I spent 5 years in a dingy Systems Design classroom. I see the poor Systems students are still stuck with those same old classrooms, but I am told there is hope for a change soon. We didn't have laptops with wifi in class. We didn't have the fancy food court in the Campus Center. The Bomber
was called the Bombshelter and we didn't have the Tatham Center with its computerized co-op system. We shuffled papers around in Needless Hell, watched lectures written in chalk or on overhead projectors instead of Powerpoint slides and I don't think I ever set foot in the Math building. Even though just about everything has changed, and I felt every bit of the 40 years I will be turning next month walking around campus, somehow Waterloo hasn't changed at all. It is full of bright kids with a fire in their eyes bound to change the world.

Rasmus Lerdorf
Technical Yahoo

(1) (only tested on OSX/Firefox)