Manchester takes step into the unknown as ‘hackathon’ lures top European talent

Nearly 300 students from around the UK and Europe arrived in the city over the weekend to attend StudentHack IV, a 38 hour ‘hackathon’ held at Manchester Metropolitan University.

The marathon programming competition, which is one of the first in the UK to accept under-18s, led to some impressive creations, like an animatronic monkey assistant and a programme capable of rhyming and tweeting like Kanye West.

Sami Alabed, a student at the University of Manchester and one of the event’s organisers, said: “The event was a huge success, we clocked in 289 attendees from 48 different universities and schools.

“We had people coming all the way from the Netherlands, France and Poland.

“Over the weekend we saw some great hacks from younger students.

“This was our first time hosting StudentHack for under-18 year olds and some of the stuff they made seriously rivalled some veterans’ hacks.”

Now in its fourth year, StudentHack is part of a young but growing student hackathon scene in the UK.  

Co-founder Bilawal Hameed, 22, has participated in over 30 hackathons and has participated in international hackathons in the U.S. and Canada.

However, as he explains, being a ‘hacker’ isn’t all about winning.

“Hackathons are first and foremost about learning and challenging your own individual skill set,” he said.

He continued: “It’s great to see so many beginners and young people who are keen to learn to code.

“When we started StudentHack in 2012, we made it as open and inclusive as possible to create an environment for people of all backgrounds to be their most creative and expressive.

“The best thing about these events is that you never know what to expect.

“You’ll often find beginners making something really useful and inspiring.

“And other times you’ll see people continue their hacks into something they pursue full-time, you just never know.”

One of the standout winners from StudentHack IV was a Yelp and Twilio powered monkey assistant named Nigel, which uses artificial intelligence and speech recognition technology to understand and answer questions.

Another winning submission was Kanye Rest, a programme that analysed more than 7,000 Kanye West lyrics and used the information to compose songs and tweets that Yeezy himself would be proud of.

The students responsible for these creations are far removed from the stereotypical hacker, who uses computer code to try and steal bank account information.

Bilawal told MM: “In my opinion, being a hacker is a mindset.

“You think about old and new problems around you and want to find ways to solve them or improve other people’s solutions.

“Hackathons give you an exciting place to connect with other people with that same mindset, whether you’ve coded before or not.”

The competition also provided students with the opportunity to rub shoulders with potential future employers.

StudentHacks’ sponsors included the likes of Bloomberg, Yelp and CDL who were all on the lookout for fresh young talent.

Bilawal said: “We encourage participants to use the most cutting-edge software and hardware and not just what’s taught at university.

“There’s a lot of value in being at hackathons and the top technology companies in the world know this which is why they are continually sponsoring hackathons.”

StudentHack was part of the Major League Hacking season, which is the official hackathon league in Europe.

Photo courtesy of Hamza Ghani, with thanks.

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