Guest blog from Charlie Crisp, Microsoft Student Partner at the University of Cambridge
Charlie has been a Microsoft Student Partner at the University of Cambridge and one of the organisation committee for Hack Cambridge
Hack Cambridge has recursed! After more than half a year of preparation, Cambridge’s biggest Hackathon has finally returned, and this year it was bigger, better and complete with Wi-Fi for the whole event!
This year we had many sponsors, including Microsoft (of course), QuantumBlack, and our co-hosts Improbable – a London based tech company who came to let us play with their ‘SpatialOS’, which aims to make large-scale simulations accessible to all. With all this, and more than 300 attendants from all over the world, Recurse was set to be a good year!
As a Microsoft Student Partner at Cambridge, I was thrilled to get Microsoft involved with sponsoring this year, and it was really great to see so many submissions involving Azure services (28 out of 48 to be precise). It was also great, as an organiser, to have Microsoft on board due to the support that we had from them, in the run up to the event and also on the day. Before the hacking even began, attendees were commenting on how exciting it was to have such a great company sponsoring the event.
The Microsoft Prize at Recurse was for projects which relied on the Cognitive Services or Bot Framework and the winning team was set to receive IOT Starters Kits, Raspberry Pi Kits, and lots of swag!
Saturday Morning. The sun is yet to rise, but the committee and volunteers unfortunately don’t have that luxury – It’s all hands-on deck to set up the final remaining bits and pieces. More important than anything else, is the fact that the coffee machines are on and functioning.
It’s not long before our sponsors are arriving and starting to set up, ready to start handing out back breaking amounts of swag! Microsoft in particular, sent over a grand total of 13 boxes (all of which disappeared in a flash.)
It’s only 8.30am, but already the most eager of Hackers are starting to arrive to make sure they get their hands on the much sought-after hardware on offer at the event. You can feel the anticipation in the air as they collect their official Recurse swag bags.
As the doors officially open, the seats in the main hall start to fill up. With hackers milling around both the Guildhall and the Corn Exchange, the atmosphere is electric.
It turns out that dragging hackers away from our sponsors is harder than it looks, but we eventually start the opening ceremony, albeit 15 minutes late.
Lee Stott from Microsoft takes to the stage to introduce the Microsoft Prize category! Artificial Intelligence isn’t just for synthesizing data anymore – Thanks to Azure services, hackers now have the ability to create programs which recognise sentiment and can react in much more human ways than have ever been possible!
After the last few sponsors introduce themselves, hacking finally begins, but now the hackers only have 23 hours 15 minutes left! An incredible lunch is being served to take hackers’ minds off the tight deadlines.
This year, Hack Cambridge has come with the promise of Waffles, so they will be here for the next few hours to provide much needed energy to all the nutella deficient hackers.
There is a great series of workshops lined up for Recurse, in order to help hackers get a better idea of what technologies they have available to them, and Improbable kick off our the string of workshops by demonstrating their SpatialOS, and afterwards, Microsoft steps in to help get hackers started with their Bot Framework.
A wise person once said that if a friendship can last through the Cup Stacking Challenge, then it will last forever. To test that theory, MLH begins the first of their mini-challenges with tensions and cup towers rising alike.
Spurred on by the memories of the incredible lunch, the committee and volunteers are rushing to pull rank and get first dibs at the incredible Dinner on offer in the Guildhall.
So far there have been no murders so it’s probably safe to say that the Cup Stacking was a success. However, MLH are back and are kicking off their second team building event of the day ‘!LIGHT’. Hackers are tasked with coding the google login page, from scratch in 30 minutes and if that wasn’t hard enough already, they can’t even see what their code produces until their time is up!
When !LIGHT finally comes to a close, we get to see the result of all the submissions ranging from ‘pretty impressive’ to ‘I-did-this-on-my-smartphone-so-don’t-judge-me’.
One of the most successful parts of the event so far have been the bean bags! However, it’s now time for them to migrate to the small hall as our sleeping area opens and the most jetlagged of hackers do their best to grab a few hours of much-needed recuperation.
It’s now 11.59pm and Lee Stott from Microsoft announces the arrival of the midnight snack from the Corn Exchange balcony with a cry of “PIZZA!!!”, prompting a swarm of hungry hackers to converge on the Guildhall.
It turns out that 5 minutes is more than ample time for hackers to demolish 180 pizzas.
The skies are dark, but the Corn Exchange is still full of determined hackers working away furiously. Short of the building collapsing, nothing is going to separate them and their hacks!
As the sun rises once more on a clear day in Cambridge, hackers slowly pull themselves towards breakfast, and there is definite feeling of calm before the storm.
As the clock grinds down to zero, we conclude another year of intense hacking and the brilliant team of Hack Cambridge volunteers begin the rush to clear the hall for the expo. Lunch is served to the hackers, blissfully unaware of the chaos as the entire Corn Exchange is stripped bare of chairs, rubbish and equipment.
Here begins the expo - Hackers have an hour and a half to show off their projects to other teams, and more importantly, our expert team of judges. who included Professor Alan F. Blackwell at the Computer Laboratory, University of Cambridge, known for his work on diagrammatic representation, on data and language modelling, investment modelling and end-user software engineering made the following quote.
Hack Cambridge was an exciting chance to see students from all over Europe apply their skills to real world problems. The judges were really impressed with the technical skill and imagination that we saw across a huge range of projects. In addition to addressing many hot topics (deep learning, big data, internet of things, machine vision, virtual reality and more), it was great to see teams carrying out ambitious experiments with new prototypes straight out of a lab.
Before we know it, we have our finalists! With some fantastic projects to show, the six teams make their way backstage as our sponsors finish deciding the winners of their prizes. As the teams are briefed for their presentations, the atmosphere backstage is tense and you can’t help feeling nervous on their behalf”
Now it’s time for the finalists to begin their presentations as the judges and onlookers try to keep their jaws from hitting the flaw in awe. The standard this year has been undeniably outstanding and the judges have a hard job ahead as we reveal this year's trophy and begin announcing the sponsor prizes.
And we have a winner! Congratulations to Natasha Latysheva and the snappily-named ‘Data Mining Political Emotions on Reddit’! A fantastic program that analyses political feeds on Reddit and combines these with linguistic analysis to plot how emotions and feelings towards political leaders change over time.
We can all breathe a sigh of relief as the trophy is successfully handed over, without being dropped, to a well-deserving winner.
It’s also time for the Microsoft Prizes to be handed over, although it hasn’t exactly been easy for the Microsoft team to choose a winner! 48 teams submitted projects on Devpost, 28 of which use Azure services. This includes all 3 winners, who collectively used Cognitive, Azure VM and Azure Data Science in their projects.
Finally, to bid everyone adieu, the committee comes together on stage to thank everyone who was involved in Recurse for one last time, and within 30 minutes, the hall is empty once more.
Hack Cambridge - We had a blast. See you next year.