A year ago, a group of students organized the University of Windsor’s first hackathon. WinHacks 2020 drew over 400 participants and this year’s is expected to be even larger – projected to attract more than 600 competitors from across the globe this March 26th to 28th.
The term “hackathon” combines “hacking” and “marathon”, describing competitions where participants solve challenges in a prescribed time period (in this case, 36 hours). Teams of between one and four students work together to develop solutions to real world problems, presented to them by a combination of local companies, industry giants and academic institutions.
As with last year, the event has prioritized local collaborators like WEtech Alliance, WaveDirect, AlphaKOR Group, Splice Digital and PepCorp, helping to connect #YQG businesses with talented students. In addition, WinHacks has attracted heavy hitters like BlackBerry, Rocket Innovation Studios, and Google – demonstrating the value tech giants put on our local talent. New this year, however, is a connection to scientific research from collaborators like the University of Windsor, WESpark Health Institute and Wolfram Language which has been spurred on by lead organizer Aislyn Laurent’s passion for cross disciplinary research.
Projects should be all new and only built during the weekend of WinHacks. Challenges facing participants this year range in theme from automobility, cyber security, blockchain technology, entrepreneurship, and health.
“It’s a great way to build new skills, because it forces you to think outside the box and try new ideas you might not have considered if you’d had more time to work on your project,” said Laurent.
While the formula for in person hackathons is well established, WinHacks is unique for the way organizers have adapted it to be completely virtual. Despite challenges, the WinHacks formula has been applied to several events with excellent results, including the highly successful BorderHacks cross border competition which took place in September of 2020. Major League Hacking, a worldwide organization which supports students in running hacking competitions, has adopted many of its guidelines for virtual events from those established by WinHacks 2020.
“At first, we were planning to limit WinHacks 2020 to 200 competitors due to a lack of venue space. When COVID hit we realized quickly we would have to go virtual. Within about a week we had gone fully online, and we were able to accept double the students,” explained Aislyn.
GOING VIRTUAL AND GLOBAL
WinHacks 2021 looks forward to innovating on the format by embracing the possibilities virtual events provide which are not feasible in person. So far there has been improved pre-event content, better networking and recruitment opportunities, and a plan to support hackers after the event with strong project follow-through. This year’s event will also include recruiter sessions where participants can interact with industry professionals one-on-one.
Another important aspect is diversity – participants will have an opportunity to connect with students from across the globe, all of whom have similar interests and various levels of hacking skills. While the majority of participants will be students from local high schools, trade schools, St. Clair College and the University of Windsor, a growing number are coming from across the world including students from China, Korea, Bangladesh and India.
“Hacking competitions are huge in Asian countries and I would say that about 25 per cent of competitors will come from overseas. We’re not just aiming for a diverse hacker population, though. We’ve made sure that our organizing committee come from a wide range of backgrounds and communities to help represent students the best way we can,” added Laurent.