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As the fall semester comes to an end, students are cramming for finals and desperately trying to decipher their notes from hours’ worth of lectures. We all can relate to that heart-stopping moment when you realize that your notes don’t match the professor’s slides, which means you either copied their notes incorrectly or worse, missed an entire section of the day’s lecture. As you rest your head on your keyboard, you wish there were an easier way.
Enter Megafind, overall winners of the recent Cal Hacks 4.0 hackathon, sponsored by SparkPost. I recently caught up with Anthony, Kartik, Kian, and Ajay, creators of this revolutionary note-taking (and time-saving) application.
Tell Me More
Who makes up the Megafind team?
There are four of us on the team, all sophomores studying computer science at UC Berkeley. Anthony enjoys playing Clash Royale, drums, and basketball in his free time. Kartik is wants to focus on consumer products, and when he’s not working, he enjoys swimming, watching basketball, and sampling tasty foods. Kian likes to play soccer is a fan of Barcelona. Last but not least, Ajay plays the saxophone and also enjoys playing tennis and basketball.
What’s the problem you were trying to solve?
Students waste time copying lecture slides without including their own personal notes. This also means they may get lost when looking at their notes later because they missed a key piece of information while copying down slides. We realized we might be able to create a web app that allowed students to use lecture time more efficiently to maximize learning.
How did your application solve this problem?
Megafind is a web app based platform for hosting live lecture sessions. Professors can begin a session that students in the lecture can join using some provided passcode. Upon joining the live session, students gain access to multiple features that provide an enhanced lecture experience. The dashboard has 3 main features:
- The first is simply the lecture slides embedded into the left half of their screen––this is for the students to follow along with the presentation.
- The right side contains two tabs. One is a live transcript of what the professor is saying that updates in real time. The app parses the professor’s words in real time to find relevant people, places etc. Each term deemed relevant has a hyperlink to additional resources. These keywords are also stored in a digest that we send at the end.
- The third feature is an in-browser note taker that begins the lecture with all the bullet points/text scraped from the presentation slides. This way, students can focus on putting their own thoughts/notes instead of simply copying the lecture bullets.
At the end of the lecture, Megafind sends each student a copy of their “lecture digest” which contains 3 parts:
- A summary of the lecture created by performing natural language understanding on the transcript
- The notes taken by the student in lecture
- Each keyword that we picked up on compiled into a list with a short summary of its definition (for study guides/quick reference)
Tell me more about the technologies that you chose to integrate with. What are they, and why did you choose these in particular?
Our web app uses live speech-to-text translation to convert the professor’s words into a transcript students can refer to during a lecture. While it is producing the text, our application uses entity extraction to pick out keywords and provide a hyperlink to more information about the highlighted content. To achieve this, we used Google’s Cloud Speech and Natural Language APIs to create this hyperlinked transcript. With this feature, students don’t need to worry about missing something the professor says. In addition, they can now refer to further resources about topics they might be unsure of.
We also used SparkPost’s email API to send each student their personal notes. Their notes were added onto the slide text, which was extracted via Google’s Slides API. The email also included a list of keywords from the entity extractor and a summary of the entire lecture. This simple but important feature allows students to keep a record of each lecture in one, single file.
What problems did you come up against while trying to build out the application?
Despite not knowing much Node.js, we persevered by asking mentors questions, checking Stack Overflow, and continually revising the code through both nights to fix our bugs. We didn’t want to stop until we had our application working exactly how we imagined it.
At the end of the day, we always love to see the creative ways that hackathon attendees choose to use SparkPost in their applications. Today, these students are solving day-to-day problems like how to keep up in class lectures, but we’re confident that the real-world skills that they learn at the hackathon will lead them to solve bigger problems down the road.
What have you been tinkering with lately? If you’ve used SparkPost in a cool way or recently integrated it into a project, we’d love to hear about it! Send us a note on Twitter or come chat about it in Community Slack.
Don’t Like Mornings? This Alexa Skill Does!
I’ll be honest, I’m not a morning person. Jokes have been made about this, coffee meetups are a common occurrence, and I may have gotten my partner and some of my coworkers addicted to coffee… but that’s another story. There’s something about having to do all of the menial morning tasks around the house that makes me want to burrow deeper into the covers. This way I can wake up excited and ready to face the day.
Tell Me More
I sat down with Jon, one of the MyMorning.Online team members, to chat about their project after the hackathon.
Who makes up the MyMorning.Online team?
We are a team of 3 developers from different backgrounds. Lou is an Android and Alexa developer, Ratu is an Applications Engineer, and I (Jon) am a Full Stack developer.
Tell me about MyMorning!
We strove to design a hands-free application that would ease people’s busy mornings as they try to get their day started. We tried to combine multiple technologies and integrate them so that they flowed together easily.
Tell me more about the technologies that you chose to integrate with. What are they?
We used Satori to pull in the live streaming cryptocurrency and BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) data. In order to link Alexa to Satori, we integrated a custom API using IBM’s LoopBack product which grabbed the latest information from a database which was continually updated by the Satori stream. This allowed Alexa’s Lambda flow to act normally as the user queried the system and the API provided the response.
Lastly, we used SparkPost to send an email to the Crypto Club with the current market data. The SparkPost API was straightforward and fit in easily and quickly. Our MyMorning.Online project was able to quickly set the sender domains and email distribution lists and then call the SparkPost API with the appropriate JSON data parameters. It worked the very first time we tested it! We wanted to enhance the email by including some CSS-driven interactivity and consulted with Avi on how to get that feature implemented, but we ran out of time, so that will happen in Phase 2.
What challenges did you run into while building the Alexa skill?
The first of the challenges revolved around the integration of Alexa and Satori. One of Satori’s strengths as a streamer product is that it accommodates applications that need push notifications. But the off-the-shelf Alexa Lambda platform doesn’t lend itself to allow push notifications, at least from our initial research. We think it may be able to be done with a custom AWS client server setup, but that would require more time to build out.
The second challenge was with the Wemo WiFi Mini Smart Plug. We used IFTTT to trigger the smart plug, and although the IFTTT command was consistently sent out, the Wemo product didn’t always turn on. These randomly occurring issues are always difficult to troubleshoot and every developer has had to deal with them at some point. In addition, the plug wouldn’t connect to the WiFi in one of the two buildings used in the AngelHack event, so that also generated a few concerns. We kept our fingers crossed during our presentation because we didn’t have enough time to identify the cause of these issues before the final presentation, and luckily, everything worked just fine!
Alexa, Tell Me Who the Winner Is
We loved the creativity of the MyMorning.Online team. They tackled a lot of integrations and used so many different APIs to bring everything together. Using SparkPost to send out a daily update to their Crypto Club was just icing on the cake!
What projects have you been playing around with? We’d love to hear how you’ve integrated SparkPost, and feature you on the blog. Leave a comment below or reach out to us in Community Slack. We always want to hear what awesome thing you’re building.
— Mary Thengvall
Hi, I’m Vincent, a computer science major and sophomore at the University of Maryland, College Park. Previously, I was a member of the organizational team for Bitcamp 2016, UMD’s flagship student-run hackathon, and a Sparkpost sponsored event. Throughout the previous year, I’ve attended eight collegiate hackathons, from places as close as UMD to as far as Michigan.
Collegiate hackathons are crazy, inspirational events filled with free food, networking, extraordinary projects, and most importantly, learning. During my freshman year of college, I attended too many hackathons for my own good.
Fortunately, I’ve learned a few things from them, and I’m here to share them with you.
I usually have around 24 or 36 hours to create something from scratch and have it functional enough to present at the end of every hackathon. At the beginning of any event, my team meets to dish out responsibilities, set sub-deadlines, and then start hacking.
At VTHacks, my team created a fleet of internet-enabled air fresheners controlled by a laptop or phone. We took each automatic air freshener apart and hooked them up to a Spark Core. Using HTTP calls made from a webapp, we scheduled times and intervals at which the air freshener would spray. Within our team, one person was responsible for the server and another for building the physical air freshener boxes. I was in charge of creating the webapp to interface with the server.
During the hackathon, we were always in a race against the clock. So setting deadlines for our progress was critical to our success. We started off building independent parts: setting up our HTTP server, creating the dashboard UI, and hooking up the air freshener to our Spark Core. We scheduled to finish most of these tasks before the end of the night. Knowing our deadlines helped us individually manage our own tasks. It also helped us plan our work around certain events, such as workshops, tech talks, and meals.
We also ended up smelling pretty darn good.
Since then, I’ve been much less embarrassed about asking questions, and much more keen on helping others answer theirs.
Whether it’s finding roommates, startup co-founders, or members for your new cast iron skillet club, it’s important to surround yourself with people that you want to be like.
As a frequent hackathon goer and hackathon organizer, I’ve realized that one of the biggest indicators of success are the people on your team. As a hacker, there’s nothing more inspirational than working on a team with teammates who are just as, if not more, invested in the project as you are.
On a similar note, as a hackathon organizer, being around passionate organizers, with everyone from the sponsorship team to the design team, was extraordinarily encouraging. Their support enabled my own determination to do my job well.
Now that I’m building my own team for Bitcamp 2017, I’m making sure to fill our organizational team with people who are invested in not just the success of our event, but also in each other.
Time management, shamelessly asking questions, and team building. I’ve applied these three hackathon lessons to my personal and professional life from my experience as a hackathon goer and organizer.
Hackathons are great. You can find a list of collegiate ones here, or a list of general ones here. If you’ve found this post informative or interesting, let us know in the comments or ping us on our community Slack channel!
Our best post hackathon advice
You’ve worked tirelessly through the night, built something awesome, and presented it to a panel of judges. It could also be that you gave it your best try but came up a little short of having something worth presenting. Either way, you left the hackathon with maybe a prize or two, some new knowledge, a few new friends, and a bag full of swag.
But what’s next? What do you do after you’ve had a chance to shower and rest post hackathon? You could choose to continue working on your project, finish it if necessary, or add that cool feature you didn’t have to the time to implement. On the other hand, you could forget about it, remembering it for the fun and learning it provided.
After the Developer Week Hackathon, Kevin Burns and his teammate, Brett Henderson decided to forge ahead with their project despite setbacks that prevented them from presenting the final product. Their dedication to their idea ended up being rewarding. I had a chance to catch up with Kevin last week about their progress since the hackathon in February.
A match made in the Twitterverse
Before Developer Week, Kevin and Brett had never met. Like many hackathon participants, they came to it without a team or idea. Kevin tweeted the need for a partner and thanks to a retweet from the Developer Week Twitter account, he and Brett connected. Their strategy was simple: check out the various sponsoring companies and try to combine technologies in order to create an application that would give them multiple chances to win one of the many prizes offered. They ended up combining SparkPost’s inbound relay and transactional sending services with IBM Watson’s sentiment analysis services to create EmailAI.
How does an email feel?
Communication via text is difficult. Sometimes when we write a message, it is read with an unintended tone. Enter EmailAI. A user can email a rough draft of a message or essay to this service and receive a response reporting the analyzed tone and emotion of the text. This report can be used to improve the message before it goes out to its intended audience.
We get knocked down, but we get up again
Unfortunately, the team met some challenges as the night went on. Issues with their domain name provider prevented them from quickly setting up the bones of the application. It also hindered them from receiving and replying to an email. Thankfully, with the help of the SparkPost mentors, they moved past it and start receiving messages and issuing replies. Alas, so much of their precious time had passed.
Their next challenge was to transform the sentiment analysis from IBM Watson into a readable format. This involved locating and manipulating the relevant data for the response email.
At the end of the 24 hour hackathon, their project was just shy of operational. They presented what they had and received some great feedback. Because they felt that they were so close to finishing it, they decided to continue collaborating and eventually got the service operational.
A Sparky at the end of the tunnel
The guys had a little extra motivation to get the application running because they decided to submit it for a Sparky Award. What they were able to accomplish using the SparkPost API impressed the judges. They ended up receiving the Grand Prize.
What you do post hackathon is up to you; your project may fizzle out or you might choose to continue it, giving you the ability to submit it for other prizes along the way or releasing it to the public. No matter which path you choose, Kevin Burns encourages you to “stay in contact with everybody that you worked with and meet. You never know who you could potentially end up working with again.”
Have an interesting post hackathon story? Share it in the #hackathons channel on our Community Slack or comment below. Check out our Hackathon section of the Developer Hub to see which hackathons the SparkPost Dev team will be attending.
Hackathon season is upon us. You may have seen a tweet from Major League Hacking or heard some hackathon experiences at a local meetup. Perhaps this motivated you to unleash your inner hacker and build something awesome for fun and even the chance to score some prizes or free swag. After scanning through the many hackathons happening in your area, you’ve selected one and registered. It’s happening… but now what? It dawns on you that you have no idea what you’re getting yourself into, you don’t have a team, and you have no idea what you’re going to build.
SparkPost loves sponsoring and mentoring at hackathons and we’ve come up with some tips and tricks to help you get the most out of your first hackathon experience.
Prepare at Home First
Before you arrive at your first hackathon, take some time to think about your strengths and weaknesses and be comfortable with them. You’ll likely be looking for team members and it can be helpful to have a short personable elevator pitch to effectively explain your skillset.
Make a decision as to which development stack you’d like to use and be sure your environment is properly setup. No one wants to waste time downloading and installing the latest version of nodejs or an ide. Wifi tends to flake – do your heavy lifting at home.
Plan to bring items for comfort and convenience. It never hurts to have a powerstrip, extra pens, a pillow, or some energy drinks. Remember you’ll be pulling an all-nighter so dress comfortably. While everyone looks dapper in a three-piece suit, you’ll probably want to stick with a comfortable shirt and pajama or sweat pants. Depending on the weather, you might also want to bring your favorite hoodie.
Talk to Everyone
The beginning of a hackathon is your chance to network. Be friendly, introduce yourself, and shake lots of hands. Use your previously crafted personal elevator pitch and start looking for potential team members and project ideas.
Be sure to go around to all the participating companies. Thank them for their sponsorship, you never know when you might need help at 2am. Use this time to find out if they have any special challenges. This is a great way to enhance a project idea and maybe pick up a prize or two. Some companies might also be recruiting, so this is a great way to find out what the company does and get an idea of their culture. Also, collect some awesome swag.
Define Your Victory
For a lot of hackathon newbies, it’s easy to think, “I have no chance of ‘winning’, why should I even go?” While it is true that many attend a hackathon to “win”, others go to find motivation, learn something new, hunt for a job, or spend time with the developer community. If at the end of the hackathon you have a project that isn’t quite finished, but yet you have a deeper, more comprehensive knowledge of a technology you’ve been wanting to learn, e.g. Slack Bots, that is a great win.
Your first hackathon should be a fun and enjoyable experience. It’s unlikely you’ll dominate the competition and win all the prizes your first time. So take every opportunity to learn and prepare for your next hackathon.
Hopefully these tips will help enhance your initial hackathon experience. If you happen to be attending a SparkPost sponsored hackathon, be sure to stop by our booth and say hello. Our team would love to help you build something awesome.
Have a great tip for a first time hackathon attendee? Leave it in the comments below. Want to chat with our developers and community members? Join our community slack channel!
The rush of learning a new skill. The flush of success when you finally solve a problem that’s been plaguing you for hours. The thrill of building something from scratch, and watching it succeed. This is what drives many people to hackathons. Student or developer, community advocate or a brand new company, everyone has an exciting time and learns new skills.
Three years ago, it was this excitement that led Mike Swift and Jon Gottfried to found Major League Hacking. MLH is the world’s largest community of student developers, designers, makers, and community leaders on high school and college campuses.
Major League Hacking hosts over 250 hackathons per year. Furthermore, over 65,000 students participate in 15 different countries across North America and Europe. As school ramps up and organizers start thinking about their next big event, I sat down with co-founder Jon Gottfried to discuss the value of hackathons and what led him and Swift to found a company around them.
Hackathons: It’s Where the Creators are Congregating
One of the first questions I asked Jon was “What is a hackathon?”
He smiled knowingly and said, “There are a lot of assumptions for what a hackathon is. Some people think it’s a startup competition or a security thing. And some even think it’s an event that’s only for the most experienced hackers out there. But when we boil it down, a hackathon is an invention marathon. It’s a compressed, marathon-period of time where people come together and build new technology.”
At its core, hackathons, and the people who attend them, are changing the world as we know it. Jon acknowledged that it’s hard to keep up! “The types of things these students are working on, even as young as high school, are pretty impressive and bleeding-edge and mind-blowing,” he said.
“As time goes on, we’re only going to see more of those break-out companies and apps and new SDKs and APIs getting their start at hackathons, because ultimately, that’s where the creators are congregating. It’s where all of these really intelligent people are meeting their collaborators.”
A Long, Sleep-Deprived, Amazingly Exciting Weekend
It’s all true – a hackathon is a fun and exciting and invigorating place to spend the weekend. You’ll go home sleep-deprived and a little stinky. However, you’ll come away with new skills, having played with real-world, in-use technologies.
As Jon says, “curriculum lags behind actual real-world development, and being able to get Amazon Web Services for free, which you’re inevitably going to be using at your job in a few years is a fantastic opportunity.”
So there’s obvious value for the attendees, but what about for the companies sponsoring the event? There are two different categories of value that Jon laid out for me, depending on your role at an event. If you’re a recruiter, you’ll get a chance to see students showcasing not only the skills that they already know, but their ability to learn new skills and figure things out on the fly. This, as Jon says, is often a more valuable component of that trade.
If you’re a developer evangelist or someone from the product team, you’ll get to see someone using your product from start to finish. You’ll also be able to receive real-time feedback about your product’s UX, UI, and functionality.
Jon clarifies: “Companies can’t assume that just because someone uses you in their project that they’ll use your product in the real world anytime soon. But realistically, once you teach people how to be more awesome by using your product in their hacks, it becomes something that’s permanently part of their tool belt.”
How Major League Hacking Remains Community-First and Mission Driven
Major League Hacking is a Certified B Corp. This means they’re a for-profit company that is certified by non-profit B Labs. MLH meets rigorous standards when it comes to social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. Jon said, “It’s the perfect way to build something sustainable as well as creating something that is very devoted to its mission.”
Their mission is quite literally written into the company’s operating documents, which holds them to a higher standard than most. “It helps us maintain a level of understanding both inside and outside the company of what we need to do to uphold those values,” says Jon.
That’s not to say they need the B Corps standards to motivate them to put community first. Throughout the interview, it was obvious that the hacker community comes first in all things that Jon does with MLH.
“A lot of the things that we provide at events, the ways we talk about our community, the ways we talk to our community, is really in that vein of putting the hackers needs first, and finding ways to leverage our resources to make their lives better,” he says.
Why? “Because these are the people that are ultimately at the heart of this movement, and who at the end of the day, are creating all of these amazing things. At the end of the day, what we truly care about is how we’re serving these hackers.”
Hackathons & SparkPost
Hackathons are changing the world as we know it, but they’re doing it one company at a time. At SparkPost, we’ve had an opportunity to participate in quite a few different hackathons. The amount of feedback we’ve received from students and other companies alike is invaluable.
Connecting with students as they figure out what they’re building, why they’re building it, and how all of the pieces hook together is not only fun, it’s enlightening for us as a team. This gives us the opportunity to continue improving on our API to make it even better for years to come.
Interested in learning more about Major League Hacking or getting involved in one of their hackathons? See mlh.io for more information. Also, keep an eye on developers.sparkpost.com to see what hackathons we’ll be at in the near future.
Why We’re Excited for Twilio Signal
1) Love talking about how bots, WebRTC, and IoT are changing the way we communicate? We do too! Not only do we love talking about it, we love developing apps and bots that help us communicate better (or at least in more fun ways), both as a company and with our community. We’d love to hear what you’re doing that’s different and cool.
2) We want to show off our Zap. Let’s get real. APIs are the star of this event, with Twilio’s coming out on top. We’ve recently linked SparkPost and Twilio, because they really are better together. With this Zap, every new SMS message received by your chosen Twilio message will automatically trigger an email notification from SparkPost.
3) Our killer limited edition client library stickers. We’ve got 8 awesome client libraries to show off, and now the stickers to go along with them! From the famous elePHPant to the purplish hues of Elixir, we’ve got one for each of them. Choose your language and represent with pride!
4) Last but not least, we want to meet you! The thing we love most about conferences is being able to meet all of you face-to-face and get direct feedback on what you love about SparkPost, as well as what we could be doing better. Our product is better because of your ideas, and we want to hear them!
So come find us Tuesday and Wednesday, May 24-25, in the expo hall. We’ll be there from 8:00 am – 7:30 pm both days. Come on by to talk shop, grab some new swag, pick up the sticker to represent your client library pride, and get a tour of the latest features.
Can’t make it to Twilio Signal? You can still build awesome things with the SparkPost API! Be sure to check out our client libraries, support docs, and more resources at the Developer Hub, and don’t forget to join our community Slack group! We hope to see you at an event in the near future.
Community Manager, SparkPost
This weekend we’re heading to The University of Maryland to sponsor Bitcamp, the University’s annual hackathon. An estimated 1,200 participants ranging from high school seniors to college students will be in attendance. They’ll have 36 hours to delve into their curiosities, learn something new, and build something awesome. The SparkPost Developer Relations team will be there to help mentor and incentivize the use of the SparkPost API. We’ll be awarding one lucky team with $500 in Visa gift cards for winning our “Build Something Awesome using the SparkPost API” challenge.
Check out our hackathon page for more information on use cases and other resources to assist you in the challenge. Previous hackathon projects have included sending double blind anonymous emails, sending encrypted emails, notifying customers of food truck orders, and displaying and storing email event data. It’s amazing to see what creative solutions come out of each hackathon.
Stop by our booth and pick up some one-of-a kind SparkPost swag made especially for Bitcamp. You can learn how you might be able to leverage the SparkPost API in your project. Our engineers will be around all weekend, and can help get you setup with a free SparkPost account. They’ll also be able to answer any questions around our Inbound Relay, Transactional Sending, and Data Analytics.
Be sure to enter our raffle for a Jackery Giant+. And don’t forget to swing by on Saturday night to refuel with slushies, served in our limited edition SparkPost cups!
Check out our recap of this year’s BrickHack Hackathon. Unable to make it to Bitcamp? We’ll be at Twilio’s Signal Conference in May and The Kansas City Developer Conference in June. No matter where you are, you can also join us in building something awesome on our community Slack channel, or follow us on Twitter.
Looking forward to building something awesome with you.
BrickHack. More than 400 students. More than 48 hours of coding. We also can’t forget the 48 hours of cookie-eating, cup-stacking, and gaming!
A few weekends ago, SparkPost sponsored BrickHack 2016 at Rochester Institute of Technology. We were in good company among other sponsors like Microsoft, Facebook, Fedora, Twilio, Staples, and Datto. Here’s a quick recap of what the weekend looked like:
The first day, everyone was beaming with energy! Aydrian and Raju took the lead at the booth and spoke with hundreds of students about SparkPost and the resources we have available to help users seamlessly incorporate our technology into their apps.
Our Hackathon challenge was quite simple: build something awesome and incorporate the SparkPost API.
During our tech talk, Aydrian presented an example of using SparkPost with a demo of an application using inbound relays to get the creativity flowing.
From laser harps to email encryption, we helped teams code throughout the wee hours of the morning. I must say, we were quite thankful for the Insomnia Cookies provided by MLH to keep us going!
At about 2:30am, we called it a night…er…morning? We needed to restore some brain power! The SparkPost team left the hackers with energy drinks to recharge, which were clearly a huge hit.
Day 2: Wrap up, Judging and Awards
You know that feeling when your alarm clock goes off after minimal sleep, and you just…stare at the clock in sheer disbelief that it’s time for you to get up again? Yeah, that was us at 6:00am as we prepared to head back over to the RIT field house.
It seemed that everyone else felt just as exhausted. The students who were once blasting music had retired to their air mattresses for a quick snooze before crunch time. The effects of the energy drinks had clearly worn off hours ago.
Around 2:00pm, judging time had arrived! We were finally able to check out all of the awesome projects that used SparkPost. Each team had incredible ideas, but there could only be one winner!
Stephen James took advantage of our Python library and had the best use of recipient lists and transactional email for his campus-oriented event website. Well done, Stephen!
Overall, BrickHack was a well-organized hackathon. Our ultimate goal was to serve as mentors for the students, and we did just that. The amount of Twitter love SparkPost received for staying late into the night was incredible.
Thanks for the hospitality, RIT! We hope to see some familiar faces at University of Maryland, College Park for Bitcamp in a couple of weeks! Until then, check out our community Slack channel, or follow us on Twitter.
-AshleySparkPost © 2018 All Rights Reserved