Our IBM Watson Hackathon experience

Jeronimo De Leon
6 min readMay 12, 2015

A run through of the 2 days at the Watson Hackathon 2015

IBM held their World of Watson conference last week in Brooklyn and as part of that conference they put on the first official IBM Watson Hackathon.

To get further hands on experience with the Watson API’s our agency decided to put a team into the Hackathon. We ended up with a team of 4 primarily front end developers including myself. The Friday before the Hackathon we decided to do a quick brainstorm of ideas based on the Watson services currently available on the IBM Bluemix platform. Coming out of that brainstorm we came up with a pageful of ideas with stronger ideas in the areas of Travel, Education and Employment.

We came into the Hackathon with the premise of primarily getting hands on experience with the Watson services and having a bit of fun.

Day 1 : May 4

The day began with me rushing over to the East 35th Street pier to catch a ferry over to Duggal Greenhouse over in Brooklyn. There was a chartered IBM World of Watson ferry waiting at the pier to take people participating at Hackathon.

When the ferry dropped us off there was a long tunnel that lead into the registration area where a big sign stated “Lets change the world together” inspiring the developers entering the complex.

The setup was really well done with the complex divided into 4 main areas. The Watson Expo area as you entered of the different services and current Watson products. The main stage area after that where the main conference was held and the two tents at the back where the Hackathon was held for the first two days.

I decided to arrive early on the first day where there was a nice spread of food waiting and got to meet a lot of interesting people. People from not only different parts of the US but also the world had entered the Hackathon. People had flown in from places such as Germany, Japan and even my home country Australia to participate. With a 100 or so developers there was a lot of competition eager to get hacking.

The morning was spent listening to idea pitches and team forming for people who didn’t have a team. With our team already formed we spent the time discussing the ideas we had come up with and the direction they could go down. Testing the different services and throwing different data sets into the services. We eventually honed into the area of education. Starting with the idea of how could we use Watson to help people find out how they best learn. We did some research on education data and found a lot of data available on the NYC Open Data site that we could potentially use. This helped pivot the idea. There was a lot of information available about High Schools in NYC. Doing further research we found their was a problem of Eighth grade students getting into a High School of their choice. So the idea spawned of creating a tool that would help students match up to high schools that would match their personality.

With our lead developer leading the charge he started off with the Watson personality insight demo app and started building from there. By the end of day one we were in a really good place with the main functionality of the app primarily there so there wasn’t a need to work into the night. There was a talk on day 3 of the conference that talked about the the API Economy we live in and how quickly we can get things up and running now. This hackathon was definitely a place for that ideal to be shown.

Day 2: May 5

As I walked into the complex I noticed a sign that was placed up at the event. “Our Machines should be nothing more than tools for extending the powers of the human beings who use them” a quote by Thomas Watson Jr.

We came into day 2 with the thought of polishing up what was done on day one and other features of functions could be added. A main feature that was added was using Watson Tradeoff analytics and finding further school data comparing school scores and gradings. Another feature that was worked on was based on a child’s personality marrying that up with what potential careers choices they should think about.

Day 2 was also the start of the main conference so they streamed the main talks on a screens in the main hackathon developer tents.

With the stellar team we had the app was in a pretty good place by early afternoon and well ahead of the finish time. IBM also provided plenty of support for the Watson services so for any issues or questions there was a IBM developer to assist. At around 5:30pm all coding had stopped and the wait began. At around 6pm it was reveled there was 33 teams presenting and we were up to present in position number 6.

The pitch was a very important part of the hackathon and one of the main judging criteria’s. Every group had 5 mins to pitch so we created a presentation video that started off with defining the problem and then the demo of the app of how we used Watson services to help solve it. Ending the pitch on what the next steps would be for NYC School finder.

An edited version of the video presentation and demo app can be seen here:

The app built can be found here:

After a long night of watching pitch presentations we happily walked away with 2nd place. Being an agency team we opted to donate the prize money to charity.

There was a lot of great apps that came out of the Hackathon and you can see them all here:

Day 3: May 6

The next morning on the last day of the conference they started the day talking about the Hackathon and the three main winners of the event. It was great to see NYC School Finder on the big screen of the conference and it was a great talk about the great things that can be created with the Watson services.

Overall it was a great event, the setup was really nice, the food was excellent and most of all it was inspiring. You left the place wanting to do more with the IBM Watson services and also learning more about the the possibilities.

Videos of the main conference are now up on YouTube:

Jeronimo De Leon

Founder of www.Welcome.AI — Helping companies learn and adopt artificial intelligence within their business.