API Hack Day – Chicago

Don’t believe what you’ve heard, good things can come in small packages. There’s been a growing trend towards building small things in even smaller amounts of time: hackathons. These events challenge developers to think up and build something in insanely small amounts of time. Over the past (holiday) weekend, a group of Nerds headed to the API Hack Day in Chicago put on by Mashery, ApigeeTwilio, SendGrid and hosted by Morningstar. Yeah, we spent one of our three day holidays writing code. This whole Nerd thing isn’t just a schtick.

Turns out that thinking small is really hard, but that challenge is what creates the energy of hackathons. Some of the projects were intentionally a technology proof of concept, others went through their first sprint to produce the minimum viable product, and a couple others had some really great ideas that needed more time to execute. The Nerdery team spent the first few hours thinking of things we’d find useful, then checking to see if an API existed that would supply the data we need; web APIs (application programming interfaces) are ways for developers to access data from different sites or applications to create really cool things. We wanted to create a reverse alarm clock to wake you up when your bus or train was actually in the area (based on GPS). Turns out the Chicago Transit Authority wasn’t up and issuing API keys on a holiday weekend.

Next up was the idea of using SMS or voice (via Twilio) to send you notifications when any of your Facebook friends check in near you using Facebook Places. Facebook’s iOS app does that in theory, but it’s not entirely reliable. We wanted to create a way to make sure those notifications got to you. Kelly and Dave whipped up a way for Facebook to store a default location (eg, 60607) or reverse geocode the last Place you checked in via Facebook. The application, which only needs to be run once as a Facebook application due to Facebook privacy and permissions, would then check on set intervals to who has checked in within a user defined distance since. A new check-in would trigger Twilio to place a voice call. Depending on the number of check-ins, you’d either get a name and place read to you, or the total number of friends nearby. The guys wanted to play with the text to speech, so we used voice.

This was a hackathon with a very finite amount of time, so if there’s a “why didn’t you add this or integrate with that” question, the answer comes down to time. We Kelly and Dave built a quick and dirty hack using Twilio (new to us) and Facebook (new everyday thanks to their rapid deployment) to see what we could do in eight hours. Anyone who overcame that looming deadline anxiety and hung in the hack the whole day won, and it was fun to be involved with it — even if I my only contribution was assaulting people with buzzwords and getting them doped up on caffeine. There were some big ideas and awesome concepts, so we were all blown away when they announced team No Brandcuffs, Braugh as the first place winners. We leveraged the momentum to announce our IPO and spinoff a new company Intr_dgl.

In related news, I’m incredibly excited about the notion of “the brand API” — just look what NPR and Best Buy have been able to do. I’m willing to bet we’ll continue to see aggressive investments by brands into an API, either public or private, over the next couple years. We’ll save that conversation for another post another day, or maybe we can carry it on in the comments. In the words of my friends at Apigee, “I <3 APIs.”

ps, if you’re into the whole masochism thing, or just like a really good challenge, you can find hackathons at Hackatopia.
pps, be sure to check out our 24 hour Overnight Website Challenge to put your code to good.

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