Building community at Hack the Gap


As you might have gathered from some of our past features, we here on the Best Buy API team are pretty enthused about the growing role of women in tech. This May we were delighted to have several of our team members take part in Hack the Gap, the first all-women hackathon in the Twin Cities. Sponsored in part by woman-oriented tech groups Geekettes and GR8Ladies, Hack the Gap’s stated mission is to “unite the women of the tech community and empower them to lead, innovate, and make.”

Hack the Gap attendees registered as a coder, tester, designer or idea person. Individuals presented 30-second pitches to a panel of judges, and attendees voted on the most interesting ideas to ensure that each idea would attract people in all disciplines. The techies then formed small groups composed of women from each area of interest and set to work on building something cool.

“The energy was infectious,” says Leah DeBruycker, a Best Buy APIs business analyst, Geekette and Hack the Gap organizer. “The coolest thing was seeing women come in, even inexperienced coders, and by the end of the weekend seeing how proud they were to demo something that really worked. Several people even came up and asked if they could do it again next weekend.”

The groups came up with a wide array of fascinating projects, including a hack that uses open data to display elected officials’ voting records, a friend-finder app that lets the user check in at a location with a profile that exists for one night only, and a travel app that matches tourists with locals who can show them the secrets of a city.

Best Buy APIs data analyst Kim Gerst was part of the winning team, whose project involved visualizing data collected from sensors using the Arduino open-source electronics platform. “I’ve been playing with Arduino with my daughter’s Destination Imagination team, so that interested me,” says Gerst. Her team included women from all manner of backgrounds. “Nora is a middle school programming teacher, Angeliki works in neuroengineering at the University of Minnesota, Emi is a front-end developer, Susan is a technical recruiter, Jasmine is in data science and analysis, and I’m in software development.”

Photograph by Julie Carroll — hellojuliecarroll.com

“One of the sensors we used was a headset from the Star Wars Force Trainer, an EEG sensor that sits on your forehead and measures an electrical current,” Gerst explains. “We hacked it so we could read the sensor readings for both the meditation level and the attention level of the brain. We connected to an Arduino so we could read the values off of a serial port. I wrote code to run on the laptop as a little server that would read off the values and stream them to a webpage. Emi graphed them and created some cool effects to illustrate the value of attentive vs. meditative state.”

Not only did the project produce some cool results, Gerst says it could have some pretty impressive real-world applications as well. “We pitched it so Nora could use it for middle school classes, so kids could use it for calming purposes. When your brain’s attention level is high, indicating alternating or divided attention, the graph displays red. When you’re in a more meditative state it displays blue. There were people on the team who practice meditation and they could turn it all the way blue.”

Beyond the final product, Gerst found Hack the Gap to be a fulfilling experience with a distinctly different vibe than other hackathons she’s attended. “Lots of idea people came, which is good because sometimes non-dev people are scared away by the hackathon name. I’ve attended hacks where I was nervous and intimidated, but this was less stressful. There was a feeling that we were there to have fun. My team had an attitude of, ‘Let’s see what we can do.’ I’d never met any of them until that day and we’re still talking and planning to get together and swap ideas.”

“It was so inspiring,” says DeBruycker. “It got us inspired to work on our own projects. We’re already super excited for next year.”