Geoblinkers @ Hackatrips: A Hackathon Experience

This past January, Fitur (Spain’s largest yearly tourism event) and minube (online travel platform), joined forces to organize the first ever Hackatrips Hackathon. The objective? To engage a group of developers, tourist specialists and designers to find and build upon great ideas on sustainable travel. After all, 2017 is the Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.

The logistics of the hackathon itself was in the hands of Hackathon Lovers, a team dedicated to the organization of hackathons and spreading passion for development. In my opinion, they did a fantastic job putting together this hackathon. They made sure that participation was more than enough, evenly built the teams, and handled technical issues and communications channels through Slack.

Plenty of sponsors co-produced the event, providing APIs, awards, or both. The main sponsors were of course minube, as well as Microsoft, HotelBeds, Cabify, Porsche, Alcalá de Henares, Carto, Goldcar, Hoteles Lopesan and Tryp Hoteles.

The Hackathon

The event was very well put together. I was actually quite surprised at the turnout, a total of 60 people from different sectors and fields of expertise. We were organized in 12 teams of 5, each consisting of 3 developers, a tourism expert, and a designer. Representing Team Geoblink were Gabriel Furstenheim and myself, both of us Software Engineers in the Web team at Geoblink. The team also included Valentín Berlin, a freelance JS developer, and Fanny Fernández, a UI/UX designer.

We had a nice breakfast upon arrival, met our new teammates, and listened to the intros. Each tech partner pitched why we should use their API -and backed up their pitch with the great awards each offered- and we had a quick 10 seconds to introduce ourselves. The instructions were very simple: We had until 1:30pm the next day to create an app related to sustainable tourism, using only the APIs provided or other public APIs, a video with a demo of how it works, and a nice pitch to show off our idea. There were no other rules nor limitations. And so we got to work.

After a brainstorming session, pondering the pros and cons of each API, evaluating our know-how, and taking time into consideration, we settled on exploring the use of Microsoft and Cabify APIs. We were quick to organize the team into a parallel task machine, and made sure our expectations and objectives were clear. It is very common for people to want to do too much, and end up achieving too little. In a time-critical environment such as a hackathon, it is better to do one thing very well, than to try to do a million things and end up trying to explain to the judges how close you were to actually doing it.

Our objective was to create a conversational interface to share rides using Cabify. We decided to use the Microsoft Bot Framework to handle the dialog, LUIS to understand language, and naturally Cabify’s API to ask for rides.

The Work

We chose to develop the bot using the Node.js SDK. We chose Node.js for its familiarity (it’s the framework that powers Geoblink, and the other team members were familiar with JavaScript) and scalability. Fortunately, the Microsoft Bot Framework has plenty of docs to develop your bot in Node. After everyone was set up, we established the different tasks to work in parallel. Part of the team focused on understanding the intricacies of the Cabify API, and figuring out a way to share rides, something the API wasn’t quite prepared to do, while the others focused on getting our bot talkin’. If you want a more in depth look at how the bot was developed, you can check out the blog post here.

While the developers worked on the code, the designers worked on communicating the idea. Fanny, a designer by trade, created a nice set of slides and a story to explain what we were doing and how we did it. We set up a nice dynamic and communication channel with Fanny to give her a good vision of what the app could do, and how it could be improved in the future, which helped her establish the main selling points and create a solid presentation. The constant feedback loop among the two sub-teams worked great.

The Pitch

We had 5 minutes to present our pitch to the crowd and the panel of judges, and then a 2 minute round of questions. Getting the timing right was the biggest challenge, and we were close to running out.

You can check out the slides here: https://www.slideshare.net/secret/EmkifUajFAu2ES

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The Projects

One of the nicer things about this hackathon was the great availability and diversity of the different APIs that the teams could use. The presence of plenty of sponsors, along with teams of people from each one, made it easy to understand each of the APIs, their capabilities, limitations, and implementations. Both the Microsoft and Cabify teams were very helpful and responsive. Having such a broad range of possibilities made the competition a lot more interesting, with an equally diverse idea line-up. Not two projects were quite the same.

Among my personal favorites, I’d like to highlight two. The first, called Envify, used Microsoft’s image recognition API to read images of the paradise-like landscapes of Tahiti or the Caribbean…and then showed you the closest matches right here in Spain. Very creative, and definitely in the sustainable tourism theme. It also looked beautiful. The second, Hidden Gems, suggested installing touch screen devices in small towns and rural areas, to engage the local community with rural tourism. Again, it was beautifully designed, with a nice presentation.

The Conclusion

We walked out of there with an Xbox One for the best use of Microsoft API’s, €100 in Cabify credit for the best use of the Cabify API, and the pride of positively representing the Geoblink engineering team.

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All in all, it was a fantastic experience, a great team-building exercise, and an amazing learning opportunity. I’d highly encourage not just open hackathons such as this one, but also organizing internal hackathons to get the creative juices flowing in your company. I can’t wait for the first 2017 Geothon!

P.S. Lunch both days was amazing! Just another touch to a great weekend.

By Ignacio "Guli" Moreno