Hundreds of college students from around the world gathered at the Student Organization Center at Hilles this weekend to participate in HackHarvard, Harvard’s largest international hackathon.
This year was HackHarvard’s first in person hackathon in three years. Under the theme “Ctrl, Alt, Create,” the event invited participants to submit coding projects that aim to solve problems across a range of categories, such as education, entertainment, and blockchain.
Nathan J. Li ’25, one of the student organizers who planned the event, said the theme was chosen as a spin on the common keyboard shortcut “Control-Alt-Delete”.
“We liked the idea of learning from the past,” Li said. “And adding new life to old ideas — like using the hackathon as an opportunity to revive projects that you maybe didn't have time for in the previous years.”
For many, the competition provided an opportunity for collaboration after two years of isolation. Thomas Kwiatowski, an experienced programmer who served as an open resource for teams during the event, said he felt this hackathon differed from past years by allowing attendees to connect in person.
“I've met people I've never thought I would meet and their willingness to go the extra mile to teach me their ways of thinking is probably the most considerable thing that I've ever experienced,” he said.
The HackHarvard organizers also acknowledged a difference between this year and the last in-person iteration of the event in 2019, noting that underclassmen played a much more significant role than before.
“Our team is basically entirely made up of freshmen and sophomores,” Li said. “So it's a very exciting time, where we have a lot of freedom to decide how to run HackHarvard, and we're discovering a lot of things along the way.”
Michael Dacanay, a competitor from North Carolina State University, said the in-person nature of this year’s hackathon made the event more accessible to participants. He said virtual programming often features delays and confusion.
“You can get to know each other, collaborate,” Decanay said of the in-person competition. “Also, the mentors are easier to ask for help.”
Yuhong, a student from New York whose team was competing for prizes in the “Most Funny” and “Most Useless” categories, said he enjoyed the in-person hackathon because it allowed him to see everyone else’s projects. Yuhong’s team created a weather application that would display slang words instead of traditional temperature readings.
“I'm really excited to see what everyone has created,” he said. “I've seen a lot of cool ideas — someone is doing VR, someone's doing image processing, tracking your hand as you move — so it all seems really cool.”
At the end of the program on Sunday, the HackHarvard judges awarded prizes to the top projects. This year’s overall winning project was Empath.ly, a video conference app analyzing the emotions of users. The second place project, We Are Sus Drones, uses drones to measure carbon offset and water quality. SenseSight, which came in third place, describes landscapes to visually impaired users.
Ultimately, as it came time to pack away sleeping bags and say goodbyes, many, like participant Justin Ventura, left with new friends and new skills.
“It was memorable, mostly because when I first came here, I kind of just assumed it was going to be super focused on the project, but it ended up being more like an experience of getting to know a bunch of other people,” said Ventura.