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Computer science students compete for laurels in 36-hour 'hackathon' at Pitt

| Saturday, March 28, 2015, 7:50 p.m.
Conor Curry, 19 of Oakland, a University of Pittsburgh computer science major, works on his team project for SteelHacks, the Pitt-sponsored hackathon in Oakland, Saturday, March 28, 2015.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Conor Curry, 19 of Oakland, a University of Pittsburgh computer science major, works on his team project for SteelHacks, the Pitt-sponsored hackathon in Oakland, Saturday, March 28, 2015.
Jai Vekeria, 19, a University of Pittsburgh computer science major (left), confers with Ronak Patel, 25, a Carnegie Mellon University graduate student during SteelHacks, the Pitt-sponsored hackathon in Oakland, Saturday, March 28, 2015.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Jai Vekeria, 19, a University of Pittsburgh computer science major (left), confers with Ronak Patel, 25, a Carnegie Mellon University graduate student during SteelHacks, the Pitt-sponsored hackathon in Oakland, Saturday, March 28, 2015.

Don't let their nickname fool you.

The 150 bleary-eyed “hackers” toiling this weekend at the University of Pittsburgh aren't looking to swipe your passwords, your credit card numbers or your email.

Instead, computer gurus at the first SteelHacks “hackathon” are in a 36-hour race to build mobile applications and other digital tools they hope will inspire real-world uses. It's the latest in a national surge of the sleep-deprived marathons, several hundred of which are expected this year.

“When we say ‘hacking,' it's not breaking into anything. It's actually making stuff — like you hack stuff together,” said Ritwik Gupta, 18, a Pitt freshman, computer science major and lead organizer for SteelHacks. “You create basically anything you want to.”

Competitors from Pitt, Carnegie Mellon University and other local schools form small teams, each with access to a cross-section of technology supplied through Major League Hacking, a New York-based sanctioning group.

Since about 8 p.m. Friday, teams had huddled on two floors at Sennott Square in Oakland. The rules let their imaginations roam, but judges who consider the final products for awards Sunday morning will look for the most promising approaches to practical problems.

By Saturday morning, Pitt sophomore Conor Curry, 19, and his teammates were chewing over how to monitor brain waves and tailor calming music for individual listeners.

“One big use could be if someone had chronic panic attacks,” Curry said.

His teammate Ronak Patel, 25, a Carnegie Mellon graduate student, said a program might customize tones and volumes to influence someone's mood.

One floor up, another team imagined something of a social alert system. It could illuminate a personalized map to alert a person to her favorite things — free food or tech events, for instance — while helping her avoid traffic jams, allergens or disease outbreaks, students said.

“You can join groups that are relevant to you and get real-time alerts very easily,” said Alex Xiao, a freshman and computer science major at Carnegie Mellon.

When such ideas catch on at hackathons, they can become digital blockbusters. The GroupMe mobile group messaging app, now owned by Microsoft, ranks among the best-known successes from the events, said Major League Hacking commissioner Nick Quinlan.

He said the sanctioning group has worked before with Carnegie Mellon students on hackathons, although SteelHacks is the first MLH-sanctioned gathering in Pittsburgh.

“I think hackathons are this really, really cool supplement to the traditional computer science education,” Quinlan said.

Sponsors such as Google and Oracle can use the events to recruit future workers and market products, supporters said. Gupta said it took more than $15,000 to put on SteelHacks, for which organizers charged no participation fee. They're aiming to expand to 400 participants next year.

The Pitt Department of Computer Science and Computer Science Club collaborated in the effort, which Gupta said should highlight Pittsburgh as a technology hub. Xiao said even rough concepts that emerge from the gatherings could influence the tech landscape.

“It might not have a real-world application just yet, but it's a really good start,” he said.

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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