Berlin – Hackathon

This past Tuesday marked the start to my adventure across Western Europe. I had been planning to fly to Berlin from Stuttgart but found myself unable to due to labor strikes among Berlin airport ground-crews. I booked a train at the last minute and spent 5 hours cruising through the German countryside all of Tuesday afternoon to find myself in Berlin on-time to check in to a rented apartment I would be sharing with my teammates.

Teammates?  Before I would be able to do any sightseeing in Berlin, I had arranged with some of the other trainees to attend a conference / hackathon event in the city. I was not sightseeing until Friday in Berlin – this post will focus on my time while working during the week in the city.

A lot of the technical trainees agreed to attend the event, so one of us found a large apartment for all of us to share. The space was quite unique and hard to describe. The apartment was one huge room segmented into individual sleeping spaces. Naturally, I grabbed the top “bunk” as soon as I could, but calling it a bunk is misleading. I slept above someone else but we each had individual enclosed rooms with a small door. My “room” was accessible via a ladder and also a small bridge near the ceiling which I found very entertaining. The place felt a little like a playground and featured a few cool spots to gather and work on ideas.


Though the space was cool, it was not the most practical – we had a neighbor who was very particular about us making any noise and asked that we not walk around the apartment after midnight – apparently the construction was not the best here and he could hear everything we did quite loudly. Overall although the apartment was not the most practical I thought it was fun to be staying together and the unit effectively gave everyone enough privacy and space.

After settling in, we set out for an Egyptian restaurant we found from a recommendation. We ordered a ton of appetizers (including hummus.. mmm) and I got a mixed grilled-meats plate. The food was very good although I didn’t care for the liver or the yogurt drink I ordered, which was very sour.

A few people wanted to stop for drinks on the way  back from dinner. While I didn’t care to drink, I found a massive bar of chocolate at the convenience store where we stopped and decided that that would be my vice for the competition days, rather than alcohol. When we got home I had a few squares of it while we discussed ideas for the competition. We turned in for a relatively early night without things getting too crazy.

We woke up early the next day to get to the hackathon on-time to start our project. After I took a cold shower (we ran out of hot water), we grabbed some pastries on our way to the metro and were at the venue a short ride later. We checked in without incident, and spent a few minutes in the morning seeing some of the exhibitions and talking to people from different companies.

A proof-on-concept vehicle at the hackathon

After touring the conference, we gathered to hear the introduction and get the rules for the hackathon, after which we immediately sat down at our table to devise our project. Our hackathon was focused on connected mobility solutions, so we settled on tackling the problem of hit-and-run collisions. Our proposed implementation was a network of communication between passenger vehicles which would allow neighboring vehicles to take pictures in the event that one of the vehicles detected a collision while parked.

Announcing the hackathons

To mock up what this might feel like, I designed a demonstration – we would have a Bosch accelerometer send a message to a server running on a Microsoft Azure cloud, which would then relay a message to a connected smartphone application. This app was then responsible for making the phone take pictures and uploading the results to the server via FTP, which then ran a script to consolidate the images into a mock report.

Shortly after we decided our architecture, we split off into smaller teams to tackle the various pieces, including  few people who were devising the business case and preparing the presentation. I claimed responsibility for the smartphone app and immediately got to work in android studio to throw something together based on code samples.

We worked all day and had an app taking pictures pretty quickly, but needed to re-vamp things a little to get something that we could integrate properly with the rest of the project. Around dinner time I was getting a little frustrated, but my frustration soon ended when they started serving drinks. I had a beer or two and found myself having a lot of fun joking about how bad our code was, and about the project in general. I liked hanging out with the guys.

Around 11 PM we decided that while there was more work to be done, we could accomplish what we needed to with the app from our apartment. We packed up and went to leave the venue, only to find some sort of weird concert-like event going on in the other room. We stayed a few minutes to observe, and a few others took advantage of the open bar while I grabbed a few pictures.

The concert venue

Eventually we left, and my android-dev partner and I worked for another hour or so to wrap up the major implementation and fix the design. I ate more of my giant chocolate bar while we worked, and around 1AM we headed to bed.

The next morning I woke up and had another cold shower before heading out to the event. When we arrived I began to test my code from the previous evening and found things to be working (more-or-less) smoothly. We had to present our progress by 2PM, so before too long we were trying to shoot a video to showcase our demonstration. We could successfully shake our accelerometer and have several nearby phones start taking and uploading pictures. A few of the guys mocked-up cars to place the phones in, and we staged a cheesy “hit and run” scene with the cutouts.

By 2PM we were ready to show our product. Our business team had put together a rock-solid presentation, and our demo video, while crude, showcased the concept. We had succeeded and felt proud of what we’d built. We had a good use case, interested stakeholders, and a (barely) working prototype.

In our hackathon there were about 20 entrants, and I didn’t like most of the entries. Several of the attendees came to the event with an idea in mind, and more than a few were actually start-ups trying to get exposure and be noticed. I thought that defeated the purpose of the hackathon as a medium, and it seemed like a waste of their time and money to be there to me.

We did not win – I am fine with that, as we had some difficulty with our presentation due to A/V issues and we were only allotted a 3 minute timeslot, so our showing was not our strongest. However we were confused by the business-case winner, who showcased a meet-up app for scooter riders. I didn’t really understand the benefit or the utility of such an app; maybe it was too European for me.

The technical winners were better, but still not all that impressive in my mind. They demonstrated simple convoying of indoor robots using 2D-barcodes in ROS. They likely pulled a lot of largely off-the-shelf ROS-nodes to accomplish this, but the fact that they had a working demo was nice.

A few entries there were (at the risk of sounding rude) comically bad. One guy was talking about vaguely increasing factory automation despite the fact that there was a separate hackathon competition for connected manufacturing. Another pitched a free internet radio service with no advertisements, but “local sponsored content.” It was not clear how these were not advertisements. He had a start-up for this idea. There were other ideas that were pretty bad too, and a few good ones. I was a little frustrated as it seemed like not many people had novel ideas they were pitching and we at least had that.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed my time at the hackathon and may look into pursuing more of them in the future. We hung out a bit after the awards ceremony and grabbed some vegan Mexican food after the event. We went home and called it an early night, tired after long days of programming and short nights of programming. I’m glad I took part in the event, and not only because I got to hang out with people and spend the  better part of a week in Berlin. With the hackathon over, I found myself in the historic city though, poised to spend the weekend exploring there. More on that next time. Until then,

Best wishes and safe travels,

– Ben

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