A community of coders

The fourth annual HackHarvard challenged about 700 students from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences community and beyond to paint with bold strokes, this year’s theme.

Hackers from around the world arrived at the Student Organization Center at Hilles (SOCH) on the evening of Oct. 19 to form groups and start brainstorming. By 8 p.m., teams were hard at work on their projects, exclaiming aloud from time to time as they encountered tough bugs and achieved great triumphs over the course of the next 36 hours.

"HackHarvard is an awesome experience because it’s not just a time to work on projects. It’s a learning experience with workshops from people in many different industries, as well as the academic world," said Grace Zhang, A.B. ’20, a computer science and statistics joint concentrator and one of the directors of the HackHarvard team. "As organizers, we focused on the hacker experience for our best iteration yet."

HackHarvard draws on its community to make the hackathon a unique learning experience for hackers. Alumnus Carl Gao, A.B. ’15, a computer science concentrator, returned to campus for HackHarvard, now as a sponsor representing Facebook.

"It’s been amazing to visit my favorite local spots and reminisce. But more importantly, I came back to offer mentorship to students pursuing careers in technology, because I was in their shoes not too long ago," he said. "It’s really rewarding to bridge the information gap between college and industry, and help people translate their dreams into reality."

HackHarvard continues to build a lasting community. Last year, HackHarvard brought together London Lowmanstone IV, A.B. ’21, a computer science and philosophy concentrator, and William Yao, A.B. ’21, an applied mathematics and computer science concentrator. While working on their project last year, they struck up a hacking partnership that carried over to their Introduction to Computer Science (CS50) project. This year, they returned to HackHarvard to work on a website where users can post problems to seek generalized solutions. They hope that by working at another level of abstraction and covering a more generalized solution space, they can help people solve more problems.

Another HackHarvard group, called Privasmart, tackled the issue of data privacy by creating a tool that enables people to engage with their data at a deeper level. The four-member team built a Google Chrome extension that produces quiz questions about terms of service agreements to check users’ comprehension of how their data would be utilized. Hannah Cole, A.B. ’22, said their project was motivated by her interdisciplinary studies. After taking a freshman seminar on regulating online conduct with Chris Bavitz , the WilmerHale Clinical Professor of Law at Harvard Law School , she was inspired to provide a technical solution for the data issues she learned about. 

All Privasmart team members were new to hackathons, and Randy Yan, A.B. ’22, a computer science concentrator, said, "The most challenging part was getting started."

Jason Crowley, A.B. ’22, a computer science major at Brown University, agreed, saying he learned Javascript, a whole new interface and language, for this project. He joined the project because he and Cole were from the same high school and are now taking on hackathons together as a way to keep in touch and keep their coding skills sharp.

Inspired by her friends to try hackathons and join the hacking community, freshman Andrea Zhang said, "HackHarvard was the perfect opportunity."

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