Last weekend marked the culmination of a special project I’ve been working on for many months: bringing the Cleanweb Hackathon to Houston!
Cleanweb is a global movement of people developing IT-based “clean” technologies instead of the traditional “cleantech” like solar and wind which require massive investments and decades to commercialize. The purpose of a cleanweb hackathon is to bring together talented developers/engineers who don’t usually work together, stimulate them with data and APIs that they’re not used to working with, and give them a weekend to see what kinds of innovative new cleanweb software they can develop.
There have been some very successful cleanweb hackathons in San Francisco, NYC, and Boston, but nothing in Texas. My co-organizers and I thought Houston would be a great location for such an event. Houston boasts world-leading companies in each of the major cleanweb categories (energy, food, water, waste, transportation), so we knew we could bring together people with relevant knowledge and skillsets. Our challenge would be to coax them away from their families or big company jobs for the weekend.
We decided to host the event at Rice University in Duncan Hall, the Computer Science building. Our sponsor, the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership (funded by Rice alum and legendary VC, John Doerr), provided us with this space. Through online and word-of-mouth advertising, we attracted 55 participants to sign up. Friday evening everyone gathered at Duncan Hall to kick off. After some brief intro and ice breaker activities, we introduced everyone to the data we were providing. In addition to the publicly available data from government organizations and national sponsors like Genability, we were fortunate to receive contributions from Waste Management, METRO, and Rice’s own Shell Center for Sustainability. These proprietary data sets presented a unique opportunity for our participants to build very practical solutions to very real problems.
Next we opened up the floor for participants to pitch their ideas: what they they wanted to work on for the next 48 hours. This was followed by mingling, Q&A, and building teams around each idea. Development wouldn’t start in earnest until Saturday, so we took everyone out to the Gingerman for “team bonding” before all the work began.
Saturday morning people arrived early and got to work. It was amazing to see students, industry professionals, NASA engineers, and public servants working alongside each other. Different backgrounds, experiences, skillsets, problem-solving approaches, etc. all combined together for some very innovative solutions. The teams worked all day, nourished by food donated by MyFitFoods, and well into the night. Many teams actually worked all through the night as well or slept onsite in shifts.
Sunday morning the teams wrapped up their work and in the afternoon we held final demos and presentations, which were live-streamed over the Internet. We brought in a crack team of judges from many disciplines to determine which of our seven teams had accomplished the most in such a short span of time.
I was really impressed with all of the teams, but the winners were:
1st: C02 Commuter Contributions, a web app to motivate people to make more sustainable commuting choices by translating their greenhouse gas contributions into “real” terms. One of the reasons this team won was really beautiful design.
2nd: Amazing Houston, a web and mobile app to show public transportation users all the cool places they could visit easily from intermediate stops en route to their destination. This pulled real-time GPS data from METRO’s API, so it could tell users who stop off for coffee to pay their bill quickly because the next train is arriving in a few minutes.
3rd: Revolutionary Trashcans, a mobile app that connects to a wireless scale underneath your trashcan and tells you how much food you’re throwing away. The hardware was developed last semester by one of the teams in my entrepreneurship class and now, with the mobile app in place, they are ready to begin selling to school cafeterias nationwide!
It was an exhausting weekend and one that reminded me a lot of my collegiate experience. After all, Duncan Hall was where many of my late nights were spent back then! I was incredibly pleased with the results, though. Indeed many of the projects were quite practical, as we had hoped. Several groups are continuing to develop theirs with an eye toward commercialization, and Waste Management has already approached one of our winners about a partnership. Moreover, we’re pleased to have fostered so many connections over the weekend: 55 participants and 20+ volunteers, all motivated to build software for sustainability. The event is over, but the movement is just getting started!