PennApps in Van Pelt: My thoughts

Sunday morning, 5:55 am: Not a normal time for me to leave my house – husband, kids and dog fast asleep – questioning my decision to v0lunteer to help with PennApps in Van Pelt. Spoiler alert – I’m so glad I did. I came back inspired!

Penn Apps is the largest student hackathon in the world right now. It requires (allows?) 48 hours of continuous hacking by over 1,000 hackers. My shift was for the last 4 hours.

When I arrived on the sixth floor, it was a sight to remember. People were sleeping in every nook and cranny, on every flat surface, with a notable lack of bedding materials. I was especially amused by one tall young man, curled uncomfortably around the speaker’s podium in the Class of 1978 Orrery Pavilion. People were staring straight ahead glassy-eyed at computers and phones. Laptops and power cords were everywhere. Small groups were whispering in the corners. Everyone who was awake was engaged and focused – almost scarily so.

I got to meet PennApps Director Brynn Claypoole a little while later. (I had met Pulak Mittal back when I had asked him for advice about our 2013 Mashup Contest.) When Pop Tarts and bananas arrived at 7:30 am, they were met with excitement. Even apple sauce that had to be consumed with forks was appreciated (all spoons went mysteriously missing). Brynn and I walked around the rooms offering food. Clearly most people were fixated though on the 10 am app submission deadline.

So I browsed the PennApps twitter feed and found several great Medium posts profiling teams including the Trachoma team that worked here in Van Pelt. I admired the high level of organization. Each table was numbered and the online schedule was easy to follow on my phone. Teams kept on working hard, and had to be shooed out after 10 am.

My favorite moments came later that morning. After Dot Porter and I cleared out power cords, we walked over to the Expo to judge the four apps that entered in competition for the “library” prize. We found the four groups of students and learned about their apps. (One group explained that their creation – nicely titled Book Crook – was a hack and not an app.)

The students described how they used old tech (walking around the 3rd floor stacks noting down call numbers) and new tech (“stitching” together sets of web-pages served up by Google Books). The winning team for the library prize – the Schoenberg Database of Manuscripts Visualization explained how the Bib Viz Project inspired their creation. I  appreciated the perseverance of all four teams – they spoke about challenges with battery life, wireless, lack of time to walk around Van Pelt stacks, and how they overcame these challenges.

I felt proud that my library helped host the PennApps hackathon and I’m looking forward to volunteering again – though maybe not that early on a Sunday!

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