Hackathon: If They Build It, Will We Come?

General Assembly's Hackathon inspired many app developers to reinvent what it means to think locally.
November 17, 2011

While thousands of runners gathered in Central Park for the New York City Marathon, a very different endurance event was taking place at 902 Broadway: the Reinventing Local Hackathon. American Express OPEN, Constant Contact, Meetup and Mashery partnered with General Assembly and invited a number of software developers to design and develop hacks, apps, websites and mash-ups to enable small businesses to interact with their customers—all within a 30-hour window. I was fortunate to witness the 27 teams reach the finish line and present their programs.

After the classes, like the inspirational Broadcasting Your Brand: Digital Tools for Small Businesses, we morphed from small business owners leveling up our digital marketing skills to Hackathon contest judges. A hundred or so people gathered to watch and listen to presentations revealing how the theme Reinventing Local was translated by the Hackathon participants.

A large majority of apps dealt with locating and interacting with local businesses using information based on Four Square API. Finding and sharing information on local places to eat and places to hang was a common theme. PoorSquare, the winner of the Small Biz Owners vote, helps to locate businesses that are giving out freebies or very discounted special offers. Other interesting entries included Fresh Tomatoes, which aggregates restaurant rating systems along with Building.ly, Instasq, Eatpager and others that help you locate nearby eateries or other businesses based on specific criteria like price, time frame and number of people.

Several apps explored ways to aggregate or manipulate deal sites like Groupon and LivingSocial, while others incorporated Meetup technology into the equation. And for those who like to think green, there were two apps that dealt with connecting farmers and farmers markets to social media. I really liked Farmers Fare, which let you create a shopping list and a budget, then directed you to local farmers so you could find out about their farming methods, donate to the farm if you wanted to, order your meat or produce and either pick the products up or have them delivered.

And speaking of giving back to the community, I had a special affinity for Book Circles. As a member of Manhattan Community Board Five, I know first-hand how the New York Public Library is suffering financially. The creators of this app not only want to create communities by using the public library resources to bring together people with similar interests, but they also propose that some of the revenue from this service go back to the library.

Another unique entry was Pongplaya, which lets two people play pong on their mobile devices with the loser paying for the winner’s pre-selected meal. Watts Near, an app that finds places in your vicinity where you can charge your electronic equipment, even includes ratings that assess the probability of an outlet being available.

In spite of the fabulous ideas being demonstrated, I was fascinated by the event for more personal reasons. As a presentation-skills coach and trainer, I used this opportunity to point out to my intern how presentation skills can make or break a demo. The teams that were energetic and enthusiastic engaged the audience, touched us emotionally or created visuals that popped were infinitely more successful. My unofficial presentation skills award goes to Watts Near, with PoorSquare coming in a close second. And a special shout out and honorable mention to MidPoint for being engaging and enthusiastic even though they went last in a two-hour window of presentations!

The official Hackathon prize winners are as follows.

Thanks to all the sponsors and partners and especially the Hackathon participants for an eye-opening, entertaining and informative experience.

OPEN Cardmember Robyn Hatcher is founder of SpeakEtc., a presentation and communication training company.