‘Shabbat-friendly’ hackathon draws kudos from students, sponsors

There’s no reason why Sabbath-observant hackers can’t get in on app-creating fun, says University of Maryland student Akiva Futter

Hackathoners develop apps at U of M's 'Sabbath-friendly' hackathon (Courtesy)
Hackathoners develop apps at U of M's 'Sabbath-friendly' hackathon (Courtesy)

Hackathons are a great opportunity for programmers to meet other tech-minded people and show off their talent by developing some wild and crazy software or product. They are also a place to get the attention of industry professionals and corporate sponsors of the event – possibly resulting in a job offer or funding to continue work on their project and a deal to market it afterwards.

But for one group – Sabbath-observant Jews – hackathons are often off-limits, according to University of Maryland student Akiva Futter. “Nearly all hackathons, both in the US and Israel, take place on weekends, and that includes Shabbat,” said Futter. “It’s a bit unfair, so we decided to run a hackathon for Sabbath-observant students who want to get in on the hacking fun.”

A group called JHacks headed by Futter ran its first hackathon at U of M, attracting 170 students from 21 universities across the US – and even representatives from Israel – for the world’s biggest-ever “Shomer Shabbos” (Sabbath-observant) hackathon. The event took place on February 12-14 at the university campus in College Park, Maryland, with students staying over the weekend in campus housing and enjoying a “social Shabbat” with services (Orthodox and Conservative), food, Torah lectures, and an opportunity to meet with friends, old and new. On Saturday night, when the Sabbath ended, they segued directly into the hackathon itself.

The event was open to all students, but by its nature attracted mostly Jewish students, said Futter.

A computer science student in his senior year at U of M, Futter is also active in Jewish student events and organizations on campus. He’s been to Israel numerous times; in 2014, he attended the Israel Tech Challenge hackathon in Jerusalem, developing an app called Notifi, which determines your location and checks Twitter for messages on developing situations in your area.

“The premise is that when there is a security incident — a protest, robbery, fire, etc. — people are going to tweet about it in real time,” said Futter. “Over 60% of tweets include geolocation information. We coordinate that information with sentiment analysis to determine how serious a situation is, and send appropriate warnings out to users. The app would work very well in Israel, or anywhere else.”

Two years later, Futter is organizing his own hackathon for Sabbath-observant Jews like himself.

“I got the idea last year at a small event at Yeshiva University, and decided that it was time for a mass event. U of M has a very large and active Jewish community – there are some 7,000 Jews here out of 26,000 students – so we decided ‘why not.’ We went out and got some sponsors, did some PR on social media, and the next thing we knew we had dozens of people from here, and from far away as Arizona and Canada, as well as a student from the Technion.”

Hackathoners listen a lecture (Courtesy)
Hackathoners listen a lecture (Courtesy)

Among those sponsors were companies like Walmart and Google, as well as private foundations (the Elspas Family, Goldschag Family, and Rosenthal Family foundations) and organizations (Maryland Hillel, Israel Tech Challenge). The Winners’ Prize included drones, tablets, computers, Amazon gift cards – and the opportunity to present tech to experts from top cyber-security firm Cipher Tech Solutions, Walmart Technology, and others.

Akiva Futter (Courtesy)
Akiva Futter (Courtesy)

The winner, announced on Sunday night after 24 hours of hackathoning, was an app created by U of M students Ephraim Rothchild and Akash Magoon called IntelliFlight, an application that gives data-driven flight recommendations for the most pleasant flight experience – trading off cost vs. comfort – and discovering the best “comfort buys” for a traveler’s budget.

In this year’s event participants were free to choose their tech topic, but in coming years, Futter hopes to theme the event more specifically, “like a Tikun Olam-themed event in which participants will help develop ‘grand solutions’ for some of the world’s pressing problems,” he said. “There’s no reason not to schedule another event – considering the success of this one, which was a hit with students and the event’s sponsors. We are looking forward to running this event for many years to come.”

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