So, what exactly is a hackathon?

Intelligent Environments were joined by another dozen of the UK’s finest FinTech organisations at 2014's ZappHack

So, what exactly is a hackathon?

Intelligent Environments was invited to field a team at the recent ZappHack, a Hackathon based around the imminent launch of Zapp’s mobile payment services. 

Intelligent Environments were joined by another dozen of the UK’s finest FinTech organisations ranging from established blue-chips to Silicon Roundabout start-ups. In the build-up to, during and after the event I had quite a few colleagues, friends and family ask say “So, what exactly is a hackathon?”.

While most within the tech community will have almost certainly encountered or taken part in a hackathon, it’s quite alien to those outside the profession – It’s not as if teams of lawyers gather together to pull 36 or 48 hour Red Bull fuelled legal study, or doctors converge in a refurbished warehouse to compete in throwing together radical and innovative diabetes treatment ideas.

The ‘hack’ part is probably the most misleading, actually referring to quick, informal and innovative software development as opposed to the more traditional use of the verb ‘hack’ describing activities aiming to expose vulnerabilities and penetrate secure systems. This very different use of the verb does cause confusion, especially when you need to determine the difference between these two types of activities and the two groups of software experts. Maybe a ‘mashathon’ attended by ‘mashers’ would be more appropriate, leaving the H-word for those looking to penetrate and expose rather than build and create.

Clearly the ‘athon’ part takes its reference from long-duration running, but as a marathon veteran (once at least), I’m not sure staying up past midnight to write code really compares with running non-stop for 26.2 miles. Maybe if the hackers had laptops mounted on treadmills, with the runway miles per hour inversely linked to code per hour, the ‘hackathon’ would truly deserve its name. Perhaps the commonality comes with the last part of each ‘athon’ being the most difficult and most glorious for those who make it to receive their medals. 

Back to the results of this particular hackathon, the ZappHack, our Intelligent Environments team of iOS & Android software developers came up with an innovation to simplify and automate restaurant bill splitting and payment coined ZappTheTab especially for the event.  ZappTheTab allows a group of diners to individually order at the same time, direct from their table whilst also sharing items, such as bottles of wine or platters.  With payment made via Zapp’s payment infrastructure the concept would make life easier for large groups in restaurants and those tireless waiters who will no longer have to process many card transactions per table. In true hackathon style the concept doesn’t just make use of the Zapp APIs, but also mashes together even more, with integration to the Interact mobile banking application and use of iBeacons to identify the table.

With the 5 minute presentations and demonstrations successfully navigated and Red Bull swapped for something stronger the judging panel reflecting the good and glorious from retail and FinTech industries briefly convened before announcing the results in descending order.  The tension mounted as SMS updates were received courtesy of Jeremy Bunford, Intelligent Environments’ Head of Mobile, on-site in the heart of Silicon Roundabout to cheer the team. SMS progressing from “Pitch was good” to “We’re in the top half”, then “We’re in with a good shout” and “I think we’ll be in the top 2 now” building the expectation on my train ride home. Finally the team were awarded 2nd place in a fantastic achievement, narrowly pipped by a team from Sage Pay and their excellent location based ticketing app.

Missing out on the generous first prize of a trip to South Korea, the team’s spirits were lifted by Intelligent Environments being awarded Preferred Partner status by Zapp.  We look forward to this being a fruitful partnership yielding a number of innovative products and services that we’ll see over the next few years and we’re already thinking about ZappHack 2015.