Student-run ‘hackathon’ goes virtual — and global

Design with a logo featuring the Golden Gate Bridge and reading ‘SF Hacks’

Design by Brenda Yau and Aman Kumar

SF Hacks draws more than 1,000 registrants from around the world

Every year, hundreds of students gather in the Annex at San Francisco State University, furiously coding, designing and presenting applications as part of the biggest collegiate “hackathon” in San Francisco. Last week, that hackathon instead took place over the internet, and it was bigger than ever.

SF Hacks combines keynote talks, workshops, games and other activities with a competition where teams of students race to piece together prototypes of computer and mobile applications which are then evaluated by a team of judges. This year’s theme was “Life Hacks,” focusing on how technology can aid parts of our lives that have been disrupted over the past year. “As the world is constantly changing, we need technology that can keep up,” said SF Hacks President Leisha Murthy, a second-year Computer Science student.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 forced the cancellation of last year’s hackathon, and this year organizers decided to move the event online. The turnout exceeded all of their expectations, drawing more than 1,000 RSVPs and 98 teams of competitors who submitted projects to be judged. Registrants hailed from around the world, including Canada, Germany, South Korea, Japan and India.

That global accessibility was one of several ways that holding an event during a pandemic actually worked in the organizers’ favor. And with leadership that had never been to an in-person hackathon, much less organized one, the students involved with SF Hacks had the room to be creative. “We didn’t know what an in-person hackathon was like so we weren’t restricted,” explained SF Hacks vice president Kevin Manago, a graduate student in engineering. “We could think outside the box.”

The event was organized largely through Zoom and instant messaging platform Discord, featuring a keynote talk from SF State President Lynn Mahoney and tech leaders as well as workshops from employees at Google, IBM, Microsoft and more.

Professor and Chair of Computer Science Arno Puder, who served as a judge, said he was impressed at how well the SF Hacks team managed to run a complicated event virtually. “One-word reaction? Wow,” he said. “You couldn’t have done it better.” Puder also praised competitors for focusing on relevant and timely issues. “The projects that offered help for fellow students during this pandemic, those for me stood out. You can see how real life seeped into the projects they were working on,” he said.

Many of the submitted projects had such a real-life slant — one competition winner was an app for students to anonymously submit questions to their professors, and another was a program that encourages and tracks users as they exercise. Health was another consistent theme, including the overall winner of the competition: “Checkup,” an app that uses machine learning to evaluate users’ health and connects them with local doctors.

Just as important as the competition was the sense of community built by participants and event organizers in a year when socializing has been uniquely difficult. “I would highly encourage students who feel alone during the pandemic, or who feel like they don’t have a place, to reach out to a student organization,” Murthy said. Manago echoed the sentiment. “If I never joined SF Hacks, this would just be a school for me,” he said. “From this, it became a community.”