UVA Engineering students organize virtual hackathon drawing participants from across the globe

When the pandemic forced the shutdown of events everywhere, the UVA Engineering undergraduates in charge of HooHacks proved they were able to adjust to real world circumstances, and in real time.

Fourth-year computer science students Disha Jain and Emily Mussey are the co-presidents of HooHacks, an annual 24-hour hackathon that assembles masses of students on Grounds for learning, inclusivity and fun. The theme of the event is “build for good.” The slogan took on special meaning in 2020.

Disha Jain and Emily Mussey

From Left: ­Disha Jain and Emily Mussey, fourth-year computer science students, responded to the pandemic by turning HooHacks 2020 into an opportunity to include even more hackers from across the globe.

Jain and Mussey had been closely monitoring details of the unfolding pandemic in the weeks leading up to the March 28 event. The first adjustments consisted of incorporating safety measures for in-person gatherings, based on the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control official guidance.

This meant buying large quantities of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes.

They quickly discovered these everyday items were extremely expensive, and hard to find. It was the initial sign that things were rapidly evolving. “It would be disappointing to move everything to next year, but it was starting to seem inevitable. We wanted to be good citizens and ensure safety above all else,” Jain said.

Then things took a hopeful turn. Google Cloud, a HooHack’s sponsor, suggested going virtual. Jain and Mussey liked the idea, but questioned whether technology could replace face-to-face activity. “In-person tangibles are the big draw, and we were trying to figure out if we could make this work,” Jain said.

Meanwhile, they were being flooded with emails from worried hackers and knew they would soon have to make a call. Before they could fully envision a virtual event, states across the country started prohibiting crowded assemblies. The University, like so many others throughout the United States, had already moved to online learning and would soon take additional steps to cancel on Grounds events.

“With stricter social distancing guidelines rapidly unfolding, we just made up our minds to do whatever was necessary and go virtual,” Jain said. They immediately contacted sponsors to let them know about the new format while pivoting to organizing the first-ever virtual HooHacks.

They had just a few days to make the change and quickly transitioned tasks. The concerns of event planning like food, facilities and staffing were suddenly gone. Instead there was the need for speed and know-how in figuring out how to set up a competition, workshops and career fair entirely online. The career fair was particularly important, and they received strong support from UVA Engineering’s Director of Corporate Relations John Ralston to work with sponsors.

“The big question was what could we do to make the virtual event a viable way for the hackers to still get that exposure with the sponsors,” Mussey said. “We were so lucky to be able to consult with one of our major partners, Major League Hacking, who provided guidance on ways to use technology that addressed our concerns.”

They opted for a Zoom career fair simulating a crowded event space, with individual Zoom Rooms for sponsor booths. This format offered a way to transition into one-on-one discussions during the fair. Workshops could also be offered in Zoom.

With details in place, organizers started sending out emails, Slack channel messages and Devpost advertisements not only to announce the new format, but to invite even more hackers. They could open up participation to those farther away because there were no limits of a usual in-person event, like catering, staffing and physical space.

The broader reach out resulted in a flood of last-minute signups, leading to a turnout that exceeded expectations. “Our focus is on inclusivity, and the necessity of being virtual definitely enhanced that aspect.” Mussey said. “We had interest from all over the globe. It was unexpected and inspiring.”

On March 28, Jain and Mussey delivered HooHacks’ welcoming remarks to an attendance of more than 600 total participants, including volunteers and sponsors. There were also more than 100 schools represented. Social distancing measures were stressed to the hackers, who were encouraged to communicate safely using Slack, their phones and the hashtag #HoosResilient.

Mike Raker, vice president and chief engineer for C4ISR Operations at HooHacks sponsor Leidos, gave the opening address. He asked the hackers to think about the importance of this event in the context of the unfolding global pandemic. “This is a time of self-reflection and to think about technology and society as one,” Raker said. “How can you use your skills for good?”

Hoo Hacks Twitter Pic

Social distancing measures were stressed, with hackers being encouraged to communicate by Slack and with phones. The organizers set up #HoosResilient so participants could interact during the event. Photo From Twitter.

The core competition offered hackers the opportunity to come with a pre-determined team, or to spontaneously join a team, and then complete virtual projects in seven tracks: accessibility and empowerment, art and gaming, finance, education, health, sustainability and data science.

Not only was there robust participation in the virtual career fair and workshops, the competition itself yielded 30% more project submissions than the prior year, 131 in total for 2020.

“As an organizer, it was so uplifting to see so many participants, still passionate about hacking, come out even in the worst of circumstances to create clever project ideas,” Jain said.

“People were still trying to better themselves and learn new skills while we were all social distancing,” Mussey said.

Mike Raker, who in addition to being with HooHacks sponsor Leidos, is also a University of Virginia graduate with a bachelor’s degree in systems engineering. He felt a camaraderie with these students in observing their efforts to enact a solution, no matter what the hurdles.

“I couldn’t be more impressed with the HooHacks team for quickly pivoting to pull off this successful virtual hackathon. Many students would have just thrown up their hands and canceled, but they turned it into an opportunity to invite more participants and demonstrate the power of global community,” Raker said. “Their resourcefulness, ‘can do’ attitude and resilience is inspiring. As a fellow ‘Hoo, I can say that their efforts truly embody the cavalier spirit that makes me continually proud to be part of the UVA community.”

As for using skills for good, these fourth-year computer science students were demonstrating how it’s done even before the competition started.

“One of the big things I’ve learned through my software engineering classes at UVA is to think about people, and the needs of people, before what is convenient and what is easy,” Jain said. “We had to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances without losing sight of creating a solution that met the needs of both the hackers and sponsors."

“In order to create an event that was safe and beneficial for everyone, I needed to not only communicate my own ideas but to really listen to others and hear their ideas too,” Mussey said. “Working alongside people to collaborate in meeting this global challenge has made me a better leader.”

"I was very impressed by the hackers' dedication to hosting the event virtually," said Ralston. "Disha, Emily and the entire team quickly burst into action, finding new and innovative ways to engage students and corporate partners. This event has grown in popularity every year and it is exciting to see that trend continue in the midst of such extraordinary circumstances." 

“Disha and Emily did an amazing job turning the hackathon into a virtual format in such a short timeframe,” said Kevin Skadron, Harry Douglas Forsyth Professor and chair of UVA Engineering's Department of Computer Science. “These students deserve a tremendous amount of credit for considering the challenges, and despite them, acting quickly to successfully promote a healthy competition. I am very proud of these future engineering leaders.”