Fourth Annual Hackathon Asks: How Can Technology Help the World?

By: Mindy Schwartz  |  November 1, 2017

From Saturday night October 28th to Sunday night October 29th, Yeshiva University held its fourth annual hackathon, a “24-hour technological marathon.” Hackathons have become increasingly popular events across college campuses and the broader tech community, but because most run from Friday night to Saturday night, Orthodox Jews have typically been unable to participate in these unique opportunities. YU’s hackathon is among just a handful of Shomer Shabbat-friendly events of this kind. According to co-organizer of the event Yaakov Hawk, Syms ‘18, YU’s hackathon is particularly unique because “there is nowhere else I would be able to participate in a hackathon,” and still be able to “daven with three minyanim” and “go to morning seder shiur” at the same time.  

The event was held in the Heights Lounge and open to high school and college students ages 16 to 26 at no cost. Participants were asked to make teams and, over the course of 24-hours, design an app or website, at the end of which a winning team was selected. According to organizers, around 25 teams participated in the competition, 115 students overall.

The theme of this year’s hackathon was “Giving Back” and teams were tasked with creating a project that would help serve nonprofit organizations or fill some communal need. A number of teams designed programs for Chessed-orientated school clubs such as the Random Acts of Kindness Club, the Gift of Life Club, and iGive.

“This year, our goal is for young adults in the Jewish community to have a chance to give back to their community either through coding or creativity,” said co-organizer Dafna Meyers, SCW ‘18. “We aim to combine the technology of the 21st Century with our love for our community and show that we can use technology to make significant contributions to these organizations.”

Co-organizer Atara Huberfeld, SCW ‘19, described some of the projects that teams made. “Many of the teams worked on projects that would aid nonprofits in their day-to-day activities or help people connect to nonprofits to donate to them. Other projects aimed to solve problems that students face in their daily lives, like a parking app for Washington Heights, or a searchable Jastrow [Aramaic dictionary].”

Over the course of the event, participants were able to hear talks from professionals in a wide range of tech fields. These professionals were also available to mentor students and give them feedback on their projects.

At the end of the event, a panel of four judges reviewed each team’s project and selected winners. The second place team designed a game app called Penny Arcade in which all advertising proceeds would go to a non-profit organization of the player’s choice, while the first place team made a program called LocalLending that allows people to easily lend items to one and other.

In fitting with the theme, the event also included a Nonprofit Fair which allowed participants to meet with representatives from nonprofit companies to learn about their organizations and potential career opportunities.

Chaya Levinson, Syms ‘18, who helped organize the Nonprofit Fair, told  The Observer that its purpose was to “allow for hackers and students alike to see what non-profit organizations do to give back to the community and the world around them.” She said that this year’s hackathon was specifically organized “to give students the chance to see that their coding can be utilized in a way that inspires positive change.”

“Although I am not a coder, seeing so many students coding for a cause was inspiring,” Levinson said. While the event was “just twenty-four hours” she pointed out that students were able to think of “great ideas for nonprofit innovation which will hopefully be implemented in various nonprofit organizations in order to create a positive change for the future.”

Other clubs focused on innovation also attended the event. Disrupt YU, a new club that seeks to increase entrepreneurial spirit and innovation on campus, came to table at the hackathon because, as co-president Menajem Benchimol, Syms ‘19, put it, “the hackathon is a place where students can showcase their innovation and coding skills.” He explained that his club wanted to reach students looking to transform their projects “into startups [or] side hustles and help them scale it.”

Avi Hirsch, YC ‘20, thought this year’s hackathon “was a tremendous success.” He said that while he “had never participated in a hackathon before, it was easy to get involved without too much coding experience.”

He noted the difficulty of the 24-hour window for creating a full fledged program, saying that “even in the last few hours, none of us were sure we would finish in time, but somehow we managed to complete the fully functioning app by the deadline.”

But Hirsch also emphasized the great feeling of actually completing a project, especially one made for a good cause. “The experience of being around so many fellow coders, all of whom are working to create some app or website to help others, was incredibly heartening. To [be able to] show off a useful, functioning app that I personally helped create made me proud to be one of them.”

Adina Cohen, SCW ‘19, echoed a similar sentiment regarding the satisfaction of completing a project. “It was extremely satisfying to walk out of the Hackathon having successfully finished our project,” she said.

Cohen’s one critique was the event’s “proximity to midterms.” “I am really happy that I participated,” she said,  “but I am now running solely on caffeine as I try to study for my tests that I have this week.” Still, she emphasized that she “learned a ton over the course of the Hackathon,” and her team even used coding languages for their project which they had not known going into the event.

Dassi Solomon, a sophomore from Barnard who worked on same team as Cohen, told The Observer that she “really appreciated the opportunity” the hackathon gave her “to collaborate with friends” who she  is  “not in classes with on a daily basis.”

She also praised the experience of working together as a team. “At first there was a bit of a language barrier, as I am familiar with a different coding language than that of the rest of my team,” she said, “but each of us brought our different skill-sets that we were ultimately able to successfully combine to create a meaningful product.”

Like Hirsch and Cohen, Solomon was also left with a sense of accomplishment at being able to walk away from the event having completed a successful project. “The fact that we were able to teach ourselves entirely new skills and produce something to be proud of in only 24 hours is still baffling to me,” she said.

The rapid pace of the hackathon certainly makes it a unique sort of event. Huberfeld pointed out how unique it was  for “students [to be] able to take a project from a concept in one team member’s imagination [and turn it] into a full scale app that they presented to 100 of their peers and four judges.” For her, “watching that evolution occur in such rapid time, playing out in front of you” was “pretty wonderful.”

“[The student organizers] see this year’s hackathon as a great success,” Huberfeld said, “and we are already working on what we can improve for next year.”