How to win a Hackathon!

HHH talks through 54 hours of madness with Florent Grandjean and Matthieu Rigolot, part of the team behind “Infected Flight”, the winning entry in the Tech Crunch Disrupt Europe Hackathon

Back in the day every office I worked in used to have coffee mugs or posters with “you don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps” written on them. Nowadays, especially in the world of start-ups, the message would be more likely to say something like: “you do have to be mad to work here, in fact, you may also need to be a genius, and survive on no sleep!” Such is the world of the tech start-up.

For the uninitiated, a Hackathon is an event which usually takes place over 54 hours, where programmers, software engineers, graphic and graphical interface designers, project managers and, well, geeks, get to intensively collaborate on a project, usually with the goal of creating a viable business product, based on an idea conceived within the first half hour of the event. But not just any project. Outlandish, outrageous, and ambitious endeavours are the order of the day.

What follows is a day and night of “hacking”, team members separately creating code with a feverish intensity, before stitching it all together and presenting their findings in just 90 seconds to a panel of judges, before nervously waiting to see whether 24 hours of madness has lifted their minds and bodies to new heights, or whether they have really been about as effective as the zombies they have come to resemble.

So, are hackathon’s just a flash in the pan or can they help to create genuine societal and scientific progress? The results are in. 2 weeks ago, we wrote about Appilepsy, a device which can identify when someone is experiencing a seizure, and transmit vital information about the sufferer’s location, and the nearest medical facilities, to their nearest and dearest. Appilepsy placed second at the Tech Crunch Disrupt Europe Hackathon last month, and the team have already begun to collaborate with universities and charities. Impressive stuff. Now, let’s hear from the winners.

Florent Grandjean and Matthieu Rigolot make-up 2 of the 5 strong team behind Infected Flight, a cross platform web app which can model how diseases might spread by analysing real time flight path data. The model categorises the population of a given country into one of 4 states: Susceptible, exposed, infected or recovered. An individual’s state can change according to parameters including disease specific data of infectivity, incubation time, and population density.

The platform allows users to understand how a disease may spread by allowing them to manipulate healthcare conditions to see how it would affect the spread of diseases like Ebola. By showing the positive effects of enhanced healthcare on the spread of disease the team hoped that users will be prompted to make a donation to a healthcare charity.

What the infected Flight team managed to create in such a short space of time is truly exceptional. The User Interface is a mesmerising map of interconnected events that grabs the attention straightaway and yet is easy to interpret. The message is clear; we can make a difference. So how did they do it?

Florent and Matthieu are Hipsters, Hackers and Hustlers all rolled into one, and big fans of our events. Matthieu is French, Florent Belgian. They are chic, articulate, and charming. Daft Punk, without the motorcycle helmets. They first met in March of this year at the Room in the Moon Start-up Conference. Both are seasoned campaigners, well known on the Hackathon circuit. Florent is 34, and has run several businesses, he works in the UK as Country Director of Movify, a mobile solutions company. Matthieu is 22, a freelance web developer about to launch DareTo, a platform that encourages friends to carry out dares for charity or just for fun, Ice Bucket Challenge style. Last year he won the Euromoney Hackathon, on his own.

This time, the pair needed to find 3 more team members, so they split and made their way down the entrance queue looking for collaborators; they found Andriy Marin, a friend from the Ukraine, speciality, back end developer, Eleanor Rigby Harding, the only girl, a Product Developer and Growth Hacker, and Sarvar Abdullaev, from Uzbekistan, a PHD candidate at Kings College London. Sarvar was the one who contributed the differential equations that allowed the team to integrate the flight path data.

There were 800 people at the Disrupt Europe gathering, so competition was fierce. The team quickly came up with several ideas, but Sarvar’s suggestion that too many helpful simulations are hidden away in academic libraries and that something more visual was needed, was the pick of the bunch. The next hour or so was spent working out what would be required. “Tools, images, API, data, everything written down and planned ahead; then code, code, code code!” explains Matthieu.

“Everybody brings their own stuff. Some teams brought desktop PC’s with 2 separate screens, inflatable beds, it was crazy”, he adds. “It’s a huge buzz, 1 months’ learning in one day. Everybody’s smiling and happy. Like in the Social Network movie” Florent tells me about “Pair Programming”; “one guy codes with the other guy looking over his shoulder, learning”. Sounds a bit off-putting, “Florent is a natural leader”, Matthieu tells me. “He gets everybody working together”.

Eleanor took charge of the presentation, but with 6 hours to go, Matthieu “began to freak out a bit”. “I wasn’t happy with the code, it didn’t think it was right…the data scraping, all of the mapping was…” he shakes his head in disbelief. For the record, the model was built using Python, the map created using ARC-GIS. “Great, but tricky to integrate to say the least, although the ARCGIS staff were really awesome, super friendly, congratulating us and helping us a lot!” The final presentation was so polished it’s hard to believe it could have been put together so quickly. But for the photo evidence:Infected Flight

“I think we won obviously because of the product, but also because we all got along so well”, says Florent. I ask if the guys feel exhausted or elated, after a Hackathon. “Both, it usually takes about 2 days to recover”, says Matthieu, “I was pitching DareTo to a room of 60 investors the next day.”

Matthieu also managed to get hold of back stage passes to the Tech Crunch event proper, meeting Anthony Ha, a presenter, and several other journalists. So is there such a thing as a celebrity hacker? “I guess you could be, it’s good for your career, you get headhunted a lot and people know who you are, it’s quite cool I suppose”. And with so much at stake, is it possible to, say, load the dice in one’s favour, smuggle in some code? “No, not really, you have to build everything from scratch, everybody knows what the rules are. There’s no point in cheating. You’d get found out eventually anyway.”

Finally, I ask, “so what’s next, what’s the next big thing for hackers?” Florent and Matthieu look bemused. Hackathons are here to stay, it seems, which is just as well. If you need something doing, as they say, give it to a busy person.

Both Florent and Matthieu will continue to work on Infected Flight, along with the 3 other team members, Eleanor Rigby Harding, Andriy Marin, and Sarvar Abdullaev

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