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October 30, 2020

When classes at UNC shifted fully online, so did events, such as corporate recruiting and annual hackathons. In October, UNC Computer Science student leaders and staff worked together to hold two popular hackathons, Carolina Data Challenge and HackNC, all-online for the first time.

A hackathon is a coding competition in which participants team up to develop brand new software projects. At the end of a short competition period, typically only 24 to 48 hours, the finished projects are presented to a panel of faculty and industry judges for prizes. For in-person events, the goal is to drive community and hands-on learning opportunities with social activities and skill development workshops. This fall, student leaders worked to recreate those events in a virtual environment – requiring creativity and determination to combat the fatigue associated with long periods on telecommunication platforms.

COVID calls for creative solutions

Carolina Data Challenge held its fourth annual 24-hour datathon on October 5-6. Participants worked on a dataset from either the financial, technology, or non-profit sector, and prizes were awarded to the teams who provide the best data visualization, most valuable insights, and best use of outside data, as well as to the top beginner team.

HackNC, North Carolina’s largest hackathon, was held on October 16-18. For its seventh annual event, HackNC organized its projects into four tracks: accessibility and inclusivity, education, healthcare, and sustainability, with an additional non-profit challenge.

The past seven months have demonstrated how teams can adapt to online work. The collaboration tools we use daily were creatively incorporated into both hackathons. For workshops, the team at HackNC coordinated a live stream via multiple video conferencing software on Twitch, allowing students to access content both synchronously and asynchronously on HackNC’s YouTube channel.

To foster community, Carolina Data Challenge created social events around the clock and launched a meme sharing competition, all accessible in real time via Discord.

While the department’s in-person hackathons typically draw participants from the East Coast and the southeast, the virtual editions of Carolina Data Challenge and HackNC saw participants from all over the United States and even other countries.

Project submissions reflect current times

The two hackathons brought together more than 1,300 students and mentors, with more than 100 unique projects submitted.

Projects drew inspiration from our current environment, including submissions from COVID tracking to self-care apps. Carolina Data Challenge awarded winners based each submission category: finance, health & sciences, humanities, and pop culture. Winners were also selected for best data visualization and use of visual data tools. LoganNehaLucySilas, winner of the health & sciences category, observed the relationship between the August Complex Fires, a group of 38 fires in California, and the levels of particulate matter < 2.5 in the San Fransisco area. The team demonstrated a relationship between the August Complex Fires and increased particulate matter < 2.5 levels, as well as increased levels of carbon monoxide and black carbon, in the area from August 21-23 as the fires spread. The team developed a variety of data visualizations based on different hypotheses, examining the connection between wind direction, sensor proximity to the fires, and the peak readings for particulate mater < 2.5 levels.

Drizzle, the first place hack at HackNC, produced a customized lo-fi hip-hop music creator that worked by combining a library of instrumental samples and machine learning algorithms. Lo-fi hip-hop music has become popular background music for studying, and the program creates a sample and customizes it further by using location data to match current time and weather forecasts to project corresponding images with the music. For optimal study conditions, the development team also added automatic reminders for users to look away from the screen every 20 minutes and to look 20 feet away for 20 seconds, implementing the 20/20/20 rule designed to reduce eye strain.

To redirect funding typically spent on a venue and food, HackNC supported donations to the winning hackers’ charity of choice. In total, $10,000 was raised and split among a variety of non-profits serving underserved and marginalized communities.

To see all projects, check out the Carolina Data Challenge site and HackNC DevPost page.

In addition to the support from the UNC Department of Computer Science, Carolina Data Challenge and HackNC were made possible by the following sponsors: CapTech, EY, NCSU’s Institute for Advanced Analytics, Metlife, NCDS, RENCI, SAS, Visual Data Tools, Credit Suisse, Capital One, Genesys, John Deere, Postman, Square, IQVIA, Optum, CoStar, Lionode, Millennium Advisors, Vanguard, and Deutsche Bank.

Looking forward to more virtual hackathons

With the findings and best practices from these events, student leaders are collaborating on more upcoming virtual hackathons. December 2020 will bring the inaugural queer_hack, a hackathon serving LGBTQ+ community, and Pearl Hacks, one of the nation’s longest-running hackathons for women and non-binary students, will return for its eighth event in February 2021.