HackNYU Emphasizes Sustainability, Inclusivity

Students across all three of NYU’s degree-granting campuses participated in a Hackathon with total prizes valued at over $28,000.

Over 500 students packed into Tandon's gymnasium for a 48-hour hackathon, the largest in New York. Prizes this year were valued at over $28,000.

Over 500 students squeezed into the Tandon School of Engineering gymnasium on Sunday for a 48-hour celebration of coding and creativity.

CAS senior and Executive Co-Chair of this year’s HackNYU Srishti Sanya explained how the annual hackathon works. 

“[Hackers] have a dedicated time to build something that solves a problem that they’re interested in or [one based on] whatever theme the hackathon has,” Sanya said.

At this year’s hackathon, students competed in four tracks loosely based on some of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals: Health and Well-Being, Sustainability, Education and Financial Empowerment. 

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Each track has three winners chosen by industry professionals at a Hacker Expo, during which students showcase their projects in a science-fair-like manner. Winning teams in each track get cash prizes. There are also sponsored prizes from companies like Facebook and Google. In total, the prizes are valued at over $28,000 this year.

The sponsored prizes were separate from the others and had specific requirements. Contrary Capital, a venture capital firm that invests in student companies, held a competition for most disruptive technology. Stern sophomore Lucas Wang, a venture partner at the firm, judged who would win the prize, a pitch to the firm’s CEO. Wang said he felt students can take a lot away from the hackathon.

“It’s great to get students out there in an engineering and product setting that’s outside the academic setting,” Wang said. “I learned more in a hackathon than I did in a semester of school.”

While many projects focused on sustainability this year, there was also a heavy emphasis on creating inclusive products. An app for the visually impaired that uses machine learning to detect objects in one’s surroundings won first place in the Health and Well-Being track. The winner for the Education track was an app intended for the blind or deaf that offers a way of learning and composing music that doesn’t involve seeing sheet music or hearing the music, using vibrations on the body instead. 

HackNYU takes place simultaneously across all three of NYU’s degree-granting campuses. The largest gathering takes place in Brooklyn, with satellite competitions in Shanghai and Abu Dhabi. 

The New York City hackathon is also open to non-NYU students, and hackers attended from high schools and universities across the continent. This year’s competition had an overwhelming non-NYU participation rate, with nearly 70 percent of students coming from other schools, according to organizers of the event. 

“We applied to a couple of hackathons for this weekend, but this was our top choice just because it was a big name school and it would be one of the better experiences,” Clarke University first-year Nicholas Mitchell said. “So when we got acceptances from other ones, this is the one we came to.”

While HackNYU is entirely student-organized, it relies on collaboration between multiple departments at NYU.

NYU Community and Experience Strategist Nick Jensen, an organizer for the hackathon since 2013, explained that the Office of Student Affairs, NYU IT, Public Safety, Student Government and NYU Athletics are all involved in making the event a success. Jensen added that he is proud of the event each year because it shows how much NYU administration can learn from the students.

“Students not only deserve a seat at the table, but we really should be taking more of our lead from them,” Jensen said. “And I think this kind of event will inspire the idea that students are really creative, and they can problem-solve really well.”

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Feb. 19, print edition. Email Akiva Thalheim at [email protected]

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