Our time at #stonehack2013

Author: Andy Hartwell

A few weeks ago we heard about Stone Group‘s hackathon, the StoneHack Challenge, and we fancied getting ourselves involved. So Ryan, Jack and I piled into Andy’s car and drove down to London for three days hunched over laptops, making something cool for the education sector.

The hackathon was part of the BETT 2013 conference, a learning and technology expo at the ExCel. Along with the other hackers, we were sat on the Stone exhibition stand, where we were incredibly well looked after, with the food and drink flowing.

Did I mention we also met Johnny Ball?

This isn’t just idle chit-chat; he actually gave us the idea for what won us the third day’s prize (spoilers!) and kept us entertained throughout the event. Not long after we dropped our bags and sat down, the eminent Mr Ball came and emptied his massive brain of app ideas.

The idea of the event was to run three separate hackathons, one on each day, but as we knew we were the there for the long haul, we concentrated on two projects, presenting our incremental progress each evening. The idea we liberated from Johnny was a memory game known as pelmanism, a card-based memory game whose rules you’ll be more familiar with than the name. It’s the one where you spread out a load of cards face up, gaze at them for a minute or so as you try and remember their position, then turn them face down. You then try and find pairs by turning first one card, then finding and turning over the matching card.

As a learning aid, we built an app that allowed people to create their own sets, in one of two styles: either a standard pairing game (like pairing up countries with their capital cities), or a sorting game (putting countries in order of population, for example). I set about building a very basic app using Bootstrap for the frontend and Django to power it, while Ryan set to work creating a beautiful design. At the end of the first day, I presented my bare-bones site with Ryan’s help, to the rest of the hackathon’s attendees, which included other hackers, the Stone team and a few interested parties aswell as independent judges. For this was a competition, and we aimed to win!

We didn’t. Not on the first day anyway.

Meanwhile Jack was hard at work on our second idea (which we came up without the able assistance of a former children’s TV presenter), a site that allowed school teachers or administrators to create polls which their students could vote on. We called it Schoolocracy and after Jack’s initial designs and frontend were put together, I spent the second day building the app and integrating Jack’s work. That Thursday felt a little more low-powered, so Jack walked the attendees through his wireframes while I carried on tinkering.

Needless to say, we didn’t win on Thursday.

On day three we worked pretty solidly on both ideas, with Jack adding further spruce to Schoolocracy and me and Ryan working together on Pelmanism. Because I’d spent the Wednesday building the sorting game, I needed to spend our final day on building the original concept: the matching game. So this I did, integrating Ryan’s HTML and CSS on the way. As the deadline approached, you could see steam rising from keyboards as techies worked, pizza-in-mouth, their fingers a blur on completing their projects.

There were a lot of great ideas on show (on all three days, but it really felt like people outdid themselves that Friday). We were one of the last on stage, and Ryan and Jack took the attendees – which this time included education professionals and students among the rest – through our creation. After the presentations were finished, the judges went away to deliberate, and they came back with the news that made all our hard work worth it.

We totally won.

I think we all decided that this had nothing to do with Johnny Ball’s presence on the Friday judging panel, and everything to do with our awesomeness. Although, my nonsense aside, I think we really produced something useful, fun and engaging, and something we’re looking forward to working further on.

Thanks again to everyone at Stone and Hackathon Central (who helped organise the event) for making us feel so welcome. We all had a top time and I reckon we’ll be doing something like this again. Ryan’s written up his thoughts on the hackathon, so do have a read. Also you can check out our Pelmanism app right now!