Saturday, April 12, 2008

Spelman College Gadgets Competition

A week after my Spring Break trip to Costa Rica, I flew down to Atlanta to help judge a college Gadgets contest. I crawled out of bed (before actually starting to sleep) for a 5am flight to Atlanta on the Friday, and arrived "12 hours" later at 5pm, just in time for the classic college pizza dinner. I chatted with Marcus Mitchell, who apparently is a rather high-up engineering director in NY, and then met Kevin Rabsatt, who used to work on Maps and is therefore cool with me. :)

Later that night, I held office hours for teams working on their Gadgets to meet with me to work out technical problems and get advice. Every consultation was different - some people were trying to figure out how to go from Dreamweaver to the Gadget editor (change relative URLs to absolute!), some were trying to figure out how to get around the cross-domain request (_IG_FetchContent!), and some were just looking for suggestions (e.g. add a tab with a Google code search, for the C++ cheat sheet gadget).

After that, the Googlers and I headed off to Sutra Lounge, where we started off with some drinks and then danced the rest of the night. The music was good (80s/hiphop/techno), and we even met some Atlanta Googlers there.

The next day, we woke up bright and early to judge the Gadgets competition. Each team presented their Gadget to us, explained the purpose, and showed off the functionality. I was really impressed with their presentation skills - that's something that usually CS students usually lack, honestly. The technical difficulty varied - but considering that the Gadgets contest was just one segment of the whole competition (and that they're full-time students) - I don't blame them for not having all the time in the world to spend on their gadgets. The breadth of the Gadgets was impressive - there were games, utilities, portals, and more. It was great when I could see the other students were sincerely interested in using another team's gadget for themselves. That, to me, is a definition of a successful Gadget. Check out pics from the competition below:

The rest of the day, Kevin and I tried to get work done in a lab while occasionally wandering out in the hall to watch the Lego Mindstorms robot competition. There's something fascinating about watching a robot - seeing it try to make its way around an obstacle course- wondering what it's "thinking" (or if it's simply been hard-coded).

At night, we checked out another club called Halo. It started off chill and I had my doubts as to its "club-ness", but the music and crowd picked up soon and we danced until the close @ 3am. We then went to a diner and wandered back into the hotel at 5am. I woke back up again at 8am, not feeling *terribly* amazing. Somehow I convinced myself to suck it up and go to the airport on time, but of course, the flight was delayed - delayed so much that I missed my connection in Dallas, TX. So, it took more than "12 hours" to get back to Palo Alto, but all in all, it was worth it. Atlanta was a fun city, and I need to go back to visit its Aquarium - I hear it's the biggest in the world now (better than Boston's??).

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

24 hours + 15 Google APIs + 45 students = ?

Last year, my colleague Jason and I were both just lowly college students at the University of Southern California. While there, we helped the UPE chapter organize a 24-hour programming contest, appropriately dubbed "P24". The contest comprised putting teams of students in our campus student center from noon-noon on the weekend, fueling them with all sorts of horrible junk food, pizza, and caffeine, and watching them hack desperately at their laptops into the wee hours of the night. Amazingly enough, the teams came up with some impressive and innovative projects (all to the tune of a "Tubes" theme).

So this year, we decided to try the contest again, but give it a twist and a new name: each project made during our "Google All-Nighter" would have to involve at least one of our numerous Google APIs. And since we didn't expect everyone to already be familiar with our APIs (apparently they're not yet taught in grade-school curricula), we spent the week before the contest holding workshops and talks about the APIs, alongside talks from UPE board members about general web development topics. Check out this page for links to all of our slides, codelabs, and even our ghetto attempt at taping the events (think "Blair Witch" style).

After a week of ingraining our APIs into the impressionable young minds of students, it was finally time for the All-Nighter to begin. 11 teams of students showed up to our campus building and made their nest for the night, surrounding themselves with Google-provided lava lamps and some going as far as making a multi-monitor setup and bringing a coffee machine (see pic).

We'd announced the theme of "Think Green" the night before, so most teams came prepared with project ideas involving the environment, thinking, or well, just the color green. They set up projects on, created design docs on the wiki (possibly spurred on by a 6pm contest for 'best wiki'), and began divvying up tasks amongst themselves (typically by designating a JavaScript lead, server-side lead, and graphics lead).

For us Googlers, the contest was just like extended coffee hours - teams would email or ping us on GTalk and ask for "maps help in side room" or "spreadsheets help needed by team geekc0ders" and we'd come running (or sluggishly crawling in the late hours) to their side. It was a great opportunity to see how novice users of our API were able (or unable) to use our documentation and APIs, and we now have a list of bug reports and feature requests from the students.

At the end of the 24 hours, I think we were all kind of anxious and wondering the same thing - would these teams of overworked students be able to come up with full apps using Google APIs in such a short period of time? As we watched them present their ideas and demos, the answer clearly became "yes." Judging was difficult, but we managed to award the following prizes:

  • Most Technical: "FaceMap" - An application that integrates the facebook API, google calendar, and google maps to help you see where your friends are and where they will be
  • Most Fun: "PigeonRanking" - A game where you play a pigeon that must shoot down enemy search engine carriers in order to find google search results.
  • Best use of Theme: "DreamBig" - A website with a Google map of endangered animals, aggregated environmentally thinking blog feeds, alarming statistics.
  • Best Overall: "ThinkMap" - A collaborative and interactive location-based internet games platform, built with the Google WebToolkit and using atleast 5 of our APIs.
  • Most useful - "Think Green with Your Cuisine" - A Maps API & LA CitySearch mashup that helps users find out both the price of a restaurant, and the CO2 waste that will result from visiting it.

All of the projects code is on our project hosting, tagged with uscgan2008, so feel free to check it out. Pics from the event are in this Picasa web album. Here's for hoping we get to hold another of these next year!