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Computer Whizzes Brainstorm for Cash at Hackathons

Computer Whizzes Brainstorm for Cash at Hackathons
February 19, 2014 9:33AM

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Formal, marathon group brainstorming sessions known as "hackathons" are focused on everything from developing lucrative apps to using computer code to solve the world's problems. This year a record 1,500 hackathons are planned around the globe, up from just a handful in 2010. Like the tech industry, hackathon participants are mostly men.

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It used to be that "hacking" was just a type of crime, a computer break-in. But today, the term is also part of a growing -- and perfectly legal -- mainstay of the tech sector. Computer programming competitions known as "hackathons" have spread like viruses in recent years as ways for geeks, nerds and designers to get together to eat pizza, lose sleep and create something new.

The formal, marathon group brainstorming sessions are focused on everything from developing lucrative apps to using computer code to solve the world's problems. This year a record 1,500 hackathons are planned around the globe, up from just a handful in 2010.

"A hackathon is the fastest way to actually do something about an idea," said Nima Adelkhani, organizer of the weekend-long Hack for Peace in the Middle East competition in San Francisco this month.

Law enforcement hasn't abandoned the term. Dozens of federally convicted "hackers" are serving prison sentences for computer fraud and other cybercrimes. And the Justice Department's cybercrime budget this year is $9 million to target offenses that include "hacking."

But the new uses have popped up with increasing frequency since a pair of tech events in 1999 where developers worked together to write programs. Yahoo gets recognition for the first official hackathon in 2005. And Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been largely credited with helping broaden the definitions by urging his staff to "hack" by "building something quickly or testing the boundaries of what can be done."

A new Facebook option that went live Thursday allowing users more than 50 ways to identify their gender beyond male and female was conceived during a company hackathon four months ago.

This month, the first global hackathon for Black Male Achievement was held in Oakland, California. Music Hack Day is coming in Tokyo and Hackomotive competitors will develop apps in Santa Monica, California., that make it easier to buy and sell cars.

During these sorts of tech-heavy, weekend competitions, teams of computer programmers, software engineers and developers huddle over monitors for hours, working up new apps for smartphones or other devices. A panel of judges selects winners, and prizes are usually awarded.

"Developers are a rare breed where they get paid a lot of money to do this job during the week, and they enjoy it so much they want to do it more on the weekend," said Jon Gotfriend, who's been going to hackathons for more than three years. (continued...)

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