PennApps: Interesting Hacks to the Student-run Hackathon

A week ago, a friend of ours told us about this awesome event at Penn called PennApps, where students from across the eastern seaboard come to turn their new ideas into useable products in 48 hours. Even though the event was only two days away, when we heard about the event we knew we wanted to be a part, so on Thursday night I hopped on the red-eye to Philadelphia for a hackathon that was even better than I had heard.

The most noticeable thing about PennApps it’s huge – given that at over 300 students participate, making it the largest student run hackathon, it makes sense that it would seem like a big event, but it’s hard to imagine without being there.
There were so many eager hackers that they overflowed the main room where the hacking was going on, setting up tables, chairs, and power strips in hallways, outside, in rooms and lounges in the dorms nearby – if there was WIFI, there were students cranking out code.

Impressively, the students hail from all over the east coast – there’s obviously a large contingent of Penn students, but with students coming from as far away as MIT and University of Michigan, it’s clear this event has entered the big leagues.


Overall, the quality of people’s projects was very high, particularly in terms of beautiful design, a component often lacking (understandably) in cases where coders are cranking as fast as possible just to get a baseline hack out the door. SnapSite (, who took 2nd place overall, is a great example of the sort of polished design that a number of top hacks exhibited, like BattSignal( .

Following the recent trend these days, there were also a number of hardware-based hacks, from the fun but ingenious hack that will text you when your drink you put in the fridge is as the desired temperature to LPControl, a record-player based input device (seriously:, to PayTango, a group looking to disrupt the payment industry via a biometric fingerprint reader.

It wasn’t just the hacks that were impressive – the event itself was run exceptionally well, especially given that all the organizers were students. There was a good balance of heads-down coding and fun diversions like nerf-gun fights and a 2am run to get calzones, and enough good food and caffeine to power the furiously-working hackers.

I was running around helping out students get integrated with, so I didn’t get much sleep, but I had a great time. Needless to say, we’ll be there at the next PennApps for sure.


Also wanted to give a shout-out to the Alchemy project, who won a trophy and Nexus 7 for their integration of with a semantic analysis engine to run the Wikipedia game on your own documents. Other favorites include Quirky, easy UI testing for mobile mockups; Snippit, reddit for code snippets; Emailr: Email-based social networking; and Clipmob, a crowdsourced community for sharing and finding coupons. Full list of hacks at

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– Brett

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