Hacking HackNYU

By Eric Kwok. Photos by Jonathan Philip. | July 12, 2018

three people smiling and waving at the camera

HackNYU Co-Chairs Eric Kwok (left) and Chandrika Khanduri (right) with Srishti Sanya (center), this year’s Co-Chair of Logistics and next year’s Co-Chair of HackNYU 2019.

Hackathon Co-Chair Eric Kwok Reflects on HackNYU 2018

There is no other way for me to describe my time as the HackNYU Co-Chair other than an experience. The 48-hour three-campus-wide event was months in the making. When I first met with my Co-Chair, Chandrika Khanduri, and our administrative advisors in August to size up the feat that we were all about to undertake, I already knew it was not going to be easy. I always joke that the stress of the task hit me the moment I walked out of the previous year’s hackathon. Looking to be more involved in NYU’s community, I joined the HackNYU organizing team as the Chair of the Marketing Committee in my junior year. When HackNYU 2017 ended, the Chair at the time, Ana Bolsoni, asked me if I would be interested in leading the following year’s efforts along with Chandrika I started mentally preparing myself at that moment.

Organizing one of the country’s largest global, student-run hackathons truly does take a village. That village was my team of 30 fellow students hailing from NYU’s many different schools. From securing the local and global venues to fundraising with both internal and external sponsors to recruiting volunteers and judges to rebrand and market the hackathon, it was us students who led the charge.

I would be lying if I didn’t say that the decision-making power that came with the position gave us a sense of excitement. Our board meetings were not only spent updating each other on the progress of each of the eight committees but were also used to debate extremely crucial matters such as: which item on the Chipotle menu was the most poppin’; who had dibs on which swag items; which T-shirt and sticker design was going to look the cutest; and which midnight game was going to be the most fun. It was the cupcake decorating contest, by the way.

However, this isn’t to say that the entire organizing experience was exciting. My days, weeks, and months leading up to the hackathon were filled with an overwhelming number of meetings and emails — so many that I thought it would be appropriate to decorate my graduation cap by turning it into the Gmail app icon. I often found myself flustered with the number of logistical questions I had to find answers for. When I wasn’t being a student, I was hopping on calls with sponsors, meeting with the NYU’s Public Safety, Facilities, Media, and Athletics departments, and trying to make sure we were properly staffed and in compliance with the University’s regulations — many of which I didn’t even know existed before I encountered them.

My last semester before graduating was definitely more stressful than it needed to be because of these responsibilities; at times I wasn’t sure if I could bear them all. I often asked Ana how she did it, how she managed to pull everything together as the previous year’s sole Chair of HackNYU 2017. “Yeah, I know. It’s so stressful,” she sympathized, “but it’s going to be so worth it when you’re standing on that stage during the opening ceremony and looking out at all the people that showed up to your event.”

She was right. Eight months, 30 board members, countless hours of lost sleep, and almost one hundred thousand dollars of fundraising later, the day of the hackathon was finally here. A handful of us spent that morning setting up chairs and tables throughout the Tandon Gym, and we were already worn out. But as soon as the first floor of the Jacobs building began to swell with over 500 participants, sponsors, and admins, the air became electric. Moments later, I found myself being pulled in all directions trying to answer questions.

I was probably having on average four different conversations at any given moment: talking to two different people at the same time in person, being on the phone with our point person from NYU Shanghai, and Slacking our point people from NYU Abu Dhabi. My head felt like it was in a constant state of organized chaos. There were so many things happening at once, and everyone was surprisingly under control. Well, I don’t know how surprised I should have been, since the team put so much love and labor into making sure everything would run as seamlessly as possible. But there was a part of me that occasionally took a step back, saw the scale of what we were doing, and marveled at the fact that we were pulling this off.

No Sleep in Brooklyn

In the spirit of how hackathons usually go, the next time I slept since the event was 10:30AM the next day. When I got to the hotel room, I had never been more thrilled to go to sleep in my life. In the hours I had been awake, I MC’d the opening ceremony with my Co-Chair, made emergency Target runs, sang “Rehab” by Amy Winehouse at the impromptu karaoke session that took place in lieu of Major League Hacking’s Slideshow Karaoke game, ate too many cupcakes at the Cupcake Decorating Contest, almost choked on them when I found out how much it cost per cupcake, and then continued to eat them anyways.

Oh, and of course there was the tradition of next year’s HackNYU Chair pulling me through the halls of Tandon on a mailroom cart.

Everyone on the Board was trying to have as much fun as they could, and we all got to better know each other—which makes sense when you spend so many hours with each other being deliriously awake. I went to sleep that morning with a warm sense of fulfillment, knowing that everything would be smooth sailing and that I would wake up without any fires to put out.

Before I knew it, the final day of the hackathon was here. Even though I went to bed earlier than the day before, I woke up feeling like I had been hit by a bus. The physical strain of running an event like this was catching up with me, but I could not believe that we finally made it to the end, the day that we had been planning for since August. The final hours of any hackathon are usually known to be the most stressful, with people rushing to submit their projects and organizers trying to navigate the judging process as smoothly as possible. When I got to Tandon, one of our advisors, Nick Jensen, pulled a few of us over to take a collective breath and recenter. Having been a part of the organizing team for the first HackNYU (a humble 24-hour hackathon with about 75 participants), he told us how it was important to just take the day in.

“We worked so hard to put the event together,” he said to us. Being able to see all the innovation happening in our space would make it all worth it. Nick’s words made me realize just how much work we had put in to create a catalyst for student innovation here at NYU. I carried those words with me throughout the day, all the way until the end of the hackathon.

Innovative Results of Hard Work

The projects this year blew me away. As I was walking around and talking to different teams about what they built, I found myself constantly wishing I could take their products home and use them myself. One project, Clothly, was an app that connected individuals who wanted to donate clothes directly to organizations that need them, specifying quantities and articles of clothing being transferred to make sure everyone’s needs are met. The team’s business plan involved partnering with different companies to reward each donor using the app with points that they could use to purchase new clothes from participating stores. The research had shown that people are more likely to use a product like Clothy if they receive something in return. Listening to their pitch, I couldn’t help but think of the two bags sitting in my home filled with clothes fit for donating!

Another team, Cupcycling, built a hardware hack where users could give their half-finished disposable coffee cups to a 3D-printed robotic arm that would then separate and appropriately recycle the plastic lid, pour the remaining liquid into the trash, and throw the paper cup into a separate recycling bin. Another team used computer vision and augmented reality to identify objects and display the name of that object in both English and the language into which the user wishes to translate the word.

One group, which had a team member from Flint, Michigan, built an app and website which made state water testing results and contamination data more accessible, creating more transparency and exposing when governments are lacking in providing safe drinking water to minority communities. And these were just a sliver of the many innovative projects that came out of this year’s hackathon.

Thinking about Tomorrow

One of the most notable things about HackNYU 2018 was the number of projects submitted in the Sustainability & Social Impact Track. HackNYU projects can be submitted in a number of different categories, including Assistive Technology, Healthcare, Sustainability & Social Impact, and Educational Technology. In previous years, the Educational Technology Track typically swept the hackathon, being the track with the most submitted projects because it was easy for student hackers to focus on their own demographic. This was was not the case this year, affirming that this generation is focused on making the world a more sustainable and equitable place. HackNYU has grown so much since its inception. Its original goal—to make NYU a better place—has evolved to trying to make the world a better place.

Not only was this seen in the innovative ideas and projects that came from the hackathon, but it was also reflected in all the people who made it possible. I continue to be so fiercely proud of my organizing team because they represent everything the engineering field can sometimes be lacking. The HackNYU 2018 Board is a team led by women of color and queer folks, and it was everything we brought to the table that made the event possible.

HackNYU inspired me every step of the way. An entirely student-led event spanning three cities across the world, bringing together some of the brightest minds to solve issues that affect our global community, and improve our lives using technology—it all gives me hope.