Get ready, get set – start hacking at HCC event
Here’s what technology geeks do for fun: They crowd into college classrooms, pore over government data for two days and write computer code they hope will turn into useful applications.
At least that’s what 97 university students and private technology workers will be doing this weekend at Hillsborough County’s first Hack-A-Thon at Hillsborough Community College’s Brandon campus. The Hack-A-Thon is envisioned as an annual event.
Fueled by Red Bull and chocolate, the participants will divide into teams of five or less and work on data provided by Hillsborough government agencies, such as road time for buses, GIS mapping for county facilities, the dangerous animals database, and property records.
They will pitch their final products to judges Sunday afternoon, and prizes will be awarded to the three best apps.
“They don’t do it for glory or prizes; they do it to kind of mix it up with each other and challenge each other,” said Ken Evans, a technology entrepreneur who is volunteering as a mentor and facilitator at the event.
“It’s bragging rights,” Evans said. “It’s hobby meets economic development.”
Economic development was a prime consideration when County Commissioner Mark Sharpe pushed to have the county sponsor the Hack-A-Thon. Sharpe was acting on suggestions from people like Evans, who said fun events for technology hobbyists were a way to grow Tampa’s reputation as a tech-friendly community.
And putting talented, creative people in the same room, working on something that really interests them, is bound to create economic dividends like start-up companies, new applications and jobs for young college graduates, county officials hope.
“The nice thing (about the Hack-A-Thon) is people working on their projects, meeting with private sector mentors and pitching applications to those mentors,” said Lori Hudson, the county’s communications director who helped organize the event.
“We don’t know what might happen if someone comes up with the next big idea that could lead to a business proposition,” Hudson said.
Plus, the young techies competing in the event could be paving the way for an interesting, well-paid position in the Tampa Bay area.
Joy Randels, a technology entrepreneur who has created and sold several companies, said college students tell her they would like to stay in this area after they graduate. The problem is, there are not enough interesting opportunities in technology fields, she said.
“People want them to be administrators in some big tech department,” Randels said.
Randels said she and other mentors will be looking for possible future hires among the Hack-A-Thon participants.
The Hack-A-Thon provides a unique opportunity for techies because of the county’s databases, Evans said. When the participants build an application using live data, they have proof the application works in the real world, he said.
“You are also having a better way of demonstrating to a neutral third-party, ‘Hey, look what I can do,’” Evans said.
Hillsborough government could also potentially benefit from the competition if an app is developed with practical applications to a government service or operation. A similar event in New York City called NYC BigApps used data from the city’s 311 phone service.
One winning app from New York event allowed users to post reviews of individual cabs and their drivers. A grand prize winning app superimposes directions to nearby subway stations over photos that users take with Android phones.
“A lot of municipalities have done this,” Evans said. “It not only engages the tech community and gets people to understand there is a lot of great talent out there, it may benefit county workers or county citizens.”