Hack the North 2018 — My experience at the Canada’s biggest hackathon!

Almost 10 hours flight — this is what is takes to get from Warsaw, Poland to Toronto, Canada. It was my first hackathon ever and absolutely one of the best choices I’ve made.

From acceptance to departure

When I got accepted for Hack the North 2018, it was already a win for me. I treated it as an adventure, a new way to learn, improve my skills and meet new people from around the globe. Of course I wanted to achieve something, but given that was my first hackathon, I wanted to focus on acquiring new experience, winning just wasn’t such a big deal.

You have to submit RSVP to confirm your attendance

I’ve always been curious about the world. Hence I was planning literally every minute of my stay in Canada a few weeks before the actual flight. Obviously I didn’t have much time for exploring Ontario as I couldn’t extend my stay before or after the hackathon (because of personal reasons), but although short, it was certainly a well planned trip. Fortunately, UP Express from the Pearson Airport to Downtown Toronto is really quick, so if you have enough time before your shuttle to Waterloo, it’s a must.

HTN organisers refund you designated amount of money based on your location. Remember that it may not cover 100% of the cost of your plane tickets. My reimbursment was 565 USD which was around 90% of the plane ticket costs. On the Hack The North website you can also request hardware for your project before the event.

September 14

The day has come. Departure at 10:45 in the morning… I was flying with Air Canada for the first time in my life and I highly recommend it, great meals, and friendly cabin crew compared to some other airlines I don’t want to mention here.

Flying from Warsaw to Toronto

Welcome to Canada

View of the Toronto’s Downtown while approaching Pearson Airport

I find approaching US & Canadian airports somehow exciting, it is certainly caused by the differences between North America and my home continent — Europe. Architecture, streets, cars, traffic lights, pretty much everything looks different.

I landed in Toronto at 1:55 pm. There were HTN volunteers waiting for hackers at the airport. Shuttles to University of Waterloo were scheduled to depart every hour, from 4 pm to 8 pm. My plan was to hang around downtown Toronto whole day and come back to catch one of the last shuttles. I did what I thought. Sadly, this story was intended to be particularly about Hack The North experience, so without further ado, I will just say I didn’t expect Toronto to be so damn hot in September.

Shuttles were typical american yellow buses!

University of Waterloo

Hack the North took place inside the east campus of the University of Waterloo. It’s not outstandingly large, but modern and roomy. At the 1st floor there was a small cafeteria where you can eat breakfast, launch or dinner, it was clearly prepared just for the event. Most activities were organised at the 2nd floor, where all the sponsors had their stalls. The rest of the building was full of hacker rooms and mattresses to sleep.

University of Waterloo — East campus

The food was truly delicious. Poutine, bagels, beavertails & much more. It’s one of the reasons why you should come to Hack the North in the first place — just to taste the food there. The atmosphere was very friendly, all of the volunteers were super helpful in case of any problems. As I said at the beginning, it was my first hackathon so I don’t really have comparison, but the event seemed really well-organised. The only problems I found — It was pretty cold at the last night at sleeping area. Literally, I got sick just after coming back from the event. Other problem, extensive lines to get the food and drinks — I think the longest we stood almost an hour for Bubble Tea. However, I have to say this: It was undoubtedly worth it.

Tons of lectures, contests and other activities throughout the whole event. Even nerf gun battle, Yoga and Jenga! I feel unsatisfied that I couldn’t participate in all of those enjoyable activities, but time was pressing, and in order to complete a demo of our application, we had to work most of the time. People from different companies where there to help us in case of any problems with our code and to be honest, they did help us a lot. We along with some other teams had our room at the 1st floor so pretty much anything was close enough that we didn’t have to walk through the entire building. A lot of participants, instead of sleeping upstairs in designated areas, were sleeping in their hacking rooms to wake up earlier and immediately come back to work.

One of the lectures
Working on our app :)

Judging

At the Hack the North, judges don’t choose one winner only, they choose top 12 finalist hacks instead and to be fair, I was truly astonished by some of the best projects. The ideas blew my mind, I wouldn’t have even thought about doing something like that myself. Look at “Once Upon A Time”, “Pinpointr” or “Interplanetary Desktops” on Hack the North 2018 devpost, you can check all of these projects out there. Apart from the main prizes, sponsors also awarded their own prizes to the hacks best implementing their APIs — like Google Firebase, IBM Watson, Microsoft Azure, NCR, Fitbit, Nutritionix & many others. Finalists were officially announced at 2 pm on Sunday.

Our project

Our team created an app called BitNutrition that scans the barcodes of any food items and using that, it syncs all available nutrition statistics that are then tracked in the database. These nutrition statistics are presented on our ios/android app, and some especially key data is synced to FitBit! We then use these statistics to calculate which nutrients you are lacking and exceeding in as per the daily quotas and based on those values, suggest food for you to try next to even out your diet. These suggestions can be conveniently viewed on the FitBit as well as the mobile app. — https://devpost.com/software/bitnutrition

We also tried to implement Google’s Vision API to recognise the food by taking a photo, but sadly we didn’t have enough time to completely implement this functionality. Whole app was created in React Native, which was quiet new technology for all of us.

Conclusion

Organisation was at the highest possible level. Even when I asked other participants what they thought about the whole event, most of them replied it looked much more professional than other comparable hackathons. Volunteers and organisers were kind and helpful. We got plenty of swag like stickers, t-shirts, smart bands, pyjamas, sleep masks, toothbrushes and other gadgets. A lot of lectures were available, covering topics like Machine Learning, Game Development, iOS/Android Development, Blockchain and much more. At the end, we got bonus of 100$ on Google Cloud account and 50$ to use on Amazon.

It was unquestionably worth it. Aside from obvious reasons like learning new skills, technologies and meeting new people, I learned something unique — looking from different perspective, and thinking out of the box. It was a pleasure to work with different people from around the world when each one of those people had different vision and ideas in mind.

Goodbye Toronto!

BTW, CN Tower is maaassive!