Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Hacker's day out

As I reached the venue for 2011 Yahoo Open Hack day on a windy Saturday morning, I was  greeted with a large ensemble of police men trying their best to sway the attention of the large media contigent. The ex-chief minister of the state was in a meeting with his supporters to tackle the situation that his governance had got into. I won't go to details of that, which perhaps is a topic out of my general interest and of my blog.

The venue was host to the largest gathering of engineers in India on a weekend to share a common brotherhood - the adventure of building something interesting in a span of 24 hours. And this time around, the stage was bigger and so were the stakes. My pals Vinod and Abhishek were interested enough to join me in my third stance at Yahoo Open Hack day. A couple of ideas were floating among us for sometime, and we hoped to take our adrenaline to the next level this time around. What we did not anticipate was the number of other people who shared with us the same enthusiasm and anticipation that day. A number no less than 800 non-Yahoo engineers came over from all parts of the country for this event. The crowd was a mix of professionals looking for their next big thing, to students of engineering colleges stepping up to be the next Zuckerberg of their times.

The whole ordeal of managing 800+ engineers with their hunger for wireless connections was big enough to detour even the best of the organzing teams in the world. Not to mention, the added uncertainity at which every wireless access point behaves, poured in more worries for Yahoo. This was supposed to be the biggest gathering of this kind in the world and anything Yahoo ever attempted.

A word for Yahoo. The company is going through interesting turmoil of activities at the top management while slowly sinking away from media glare since sometime. The law of dimishing returns had taken Yahoo for a ride. Not only it was losing its top tech people to competitors, its products had also taken a substantial amount of hit. But this event reminds the community every year that Yahoo still exists and carries the muscle to attempt the change. The Open Hack day becomes a religious visit for every Web and Social Software developer around the world, and is a trend now copied by all leaders in the tech space.

A word for HackDay. The concept of creating something useful and interesting in the minimum time possible is no immune to Uncertainity principle. The two different school of thoughts on this space have a distinct view on this mode of software development. The argument of a pure adrenaline based software development under time pressure challenges the opinion of well crafted and meticulously planned development approach. I agree to both the opinions and consider HackDay more like a long extended party for engineers. The idea of HackDay is not to come up with a full fledged product but to experiment and use the constraints to an engineer's advantage. A word of caution for readers who misunderstood Hackers in this space for individuals trying to steal and create digital (and physical) havoc. Hackers like fiddling, coming up with ideas and implementations that challenge the ordinary, and provide a creative relief to existing scheme of things. Hacking in Open Hack's dictionary is to come up with intuitive solutions that solve a real problem or does something really interesting. The sum of parts could potentially be a completely new thing compared to how each part works. Yahoo through its Open Hack days allows engineers to come together and share a common space to brainstorm new ideas and build models to demonstrate them in front of their peers and leading minds of the industry.

This time around the event was graced with the presence of the JSON guy, Doug Crockford. A popular name in the world of Javascript and Web Applications. Many among us if not all have grown up reading and appreciating Doug's work. He received a large round of applause from the audience as he walked up the podium with a Namaste pose, not able to derive how long he needed to have the same posture. But the crowd loved his stance and generosity. His talks had a sprinkle of geek humour bringing out the child like curiosity and a true spirit of a tech visionary at all times. Off podium he was frequently seen chatting with fellow engineers or sneaking in quietly to observe the progress of hacks.

As hackers proudly started off with their hack, there was a general sense of excitement and cheer in the air. Old faces were met, and new faces made connection. Hackers were quick on getting their hands on to the violet bean bags spread all across the venue. From a distance, it looked like a violet sea full of ships (laptops) with their masters around them. I have yet to see so many  laptops and devices in a single room in any event. After a series of sessions by Yahoo illuminati, the stage was set for some entertainment. A dance troop by the name Shadows  enthralled the audience with the moves on stage.

Post dinner, hackers turned over to their faithful partners (laptops) for a night that would set the stage for the champion of the competition. A good number of them broke the rhythm of coding by indulging in geek delights of Video Gaming, FoosBall, Chess and Carromboard. Microsoft Kinect was the star of that show, with people queuing up to take their chance at it even at wee hours of the night. We made a choice of using the night hours to finish up a core functionality of our hack - an attempt to use GPS Location of a mobile user to play Treasure Hunt. We wanted to develop something viral and what better than a game. The idea was to allow users to play Treasure hunt game through their Mobile while a Game server would track their location and provide the gamer with clues. Each clue was meant to be decoded by the gamer and clue lead to a location in the city. The gameplay allowed the gamers to play against each other, with the winner being the one who reached the treasure in the minimum time. It had all the ingredients of a winner, and is what kept us going through the night.

I am usually not a morning person, and a nightful of coding had left me in a trans-zombie state. The morning was painful, as our hack kept on crashing on our test mobile. We resolved to fix the issue, or worst - we had to demo it on the Emulator.  We tried till the end to make the demo ready but the Mobile app refused to comply. At around the end of the hack timings (24 hours), we found ourselves with a Mobile app that refused to work, and the only solution was to use the available emulator on our laptop to demo the idea. We were disappointed but it was least we could do to justify our efforts all through the night. The Sunday evening began with judges looking over each demo entry, where the hackers would have to demo their ideas to the elite team from Yahoo, including Doug.

Our demo to these judges went surprisingly well, inspite of our failed attempt to make the Mobile app work. I spoke to the judges and took them through the concept to the application including a demo on the emulator. The judges appreciated our efforts and were pleased to see somebody trying their hand on building a game using GPS as a social data. We thoroughly enjoyed that experience and came out ecstatic and surprised. Getting into the demo finals was still a distant dream as we knew that the key to finals  was the correct working of our application on a real mobile and not a emulator. Yet we comforted ourselves with the best we could do in the situation and enjoyed the time before the results were announced.

The results came out, in sync with our fears. We couldn't make it to the final demos . But our effort in making the idea work in 24 hours was enough boost to our adrenaline that kept us going. We cheered the other hackers as they proudly shared their demo with the audience. Out of a total of 170 hacks, 110 hacks were judged and 50 got their chance to demo on stage in front of all. I wasn't really impressed with the quality of hacks demonstrated compared to the expected potential of our idea. However a couple of hacks took our attention, especially hacks like FakeMyTrip - app that uses your photo to generate a fake travel pic which you can share with your friends on social networks, iPad app to transfer pictures from one social network to another in a jiff, Web application to shuttle auto rickshaws.

The event ended with the winners being announced in all categories along with the grand prize winner that included a full paid trip to New York to participate in All Star Hack Day. An open bar followed the event, as people rushed in to get their hands on free beer.  A few smiles and thank you's here and there, we moved out of the venue to head home.

A few words about the determination of Yahoo in making sure that each one of the hacker present there got internet access inspite of the overclocked access points and idiotic array of similar named hotspots people created. All participants were allowed to own a bean bag along with an electronic participation certificate. But bean bags apart, the fun for hackers was to be a part of a gathering of this size. It brought in a sense of self confidence among all participants in terms of what they can achieve out of a limited time frame and a right attitude.

The Yahoo Open Hack Day ended with a big applause for the participation of engineers, the interesting app ideas that it generated and finally for Yahoo for their courage and determination to execute an awesome event that will remembered for a long time.

Cheers to all.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Bring on the good news

How about building a newspaper dedicated to bring in good news from all parts of the daily life.

The modern newspaper is full of news that reflect poor role models, widespread corruption and painful parts of life. Is this what you need to know when you get up in morning ?

One idea that could work. A news service that is whole-heartedly focussed on bringing you whats good in the world every day. So every morning, when you read the newspaper, all you get is the fresh brew of the best in your city, country and world about goodness. And what is good ? What is not. A person's fight against corruption, initiatives by government leading to good life of its citizens, entrepreneurs working hard to create job opportunities, sportsmen and women on being the true role model for their community and country. Anything and everything that's good around you, the reader.

Is this idea worth a try ?

I bet a good idea shared is far better than fighting a bad idea.