# Friday, 22 April 2016
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MadHacks is an annual weekend hackathon hosted at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, WI. The organizers decided to move the hackathon from the spring to the fall, which left a gap of nearly 18 months between events. To maintain interest, they decided to host a smaller, 1-day hackathon on April 16. The event was billed as MadHacks Spring Fever.

85 students formed teams and submitted 18 projects.

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MadHacks organizers

I served as a mentor and a judge at this hackathon.

I also delivered a 1-hour presentation on Microsoft Cognitive Services.

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Presentation on Microsoft Cognitive Services

4 judges evaluated all the submitted projects and chose the top 3. The quality of the projects made this difficult and we had to ask several of the teams to show their project again in order to make a selection.

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The judges

Many of the projects were Microsoft branded, such as Xbox games, Azure books, and Microsoft sleeping bags.

The winning projects were:

  1. UniTravel: A mobile application that mapped a route to a destination and calculated not only the time and distance, but also the estimated cost using various transportation options.
  2. Chemical Reactor: A web app that visualized atomic motion and formed new molecules if atoms collided with a force that exceeded the enthalpy required to bond.
  3. Cellular Automata Plant: A web app that visualizes the growth of plant cells over time in a given environment.

 

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The UniTravel team
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The Chemical Reactor team

The event was organized by University of Wisconsin Microsoft Student Partner Katie Anderson.

The projects created were particularly impressive, given that they were all created in 12 hours or less.

A much larger hackathon is planned at UW-Madison in the fall semester.

Friday, 22 April 2016 13:46:00 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Friday, 11 March 2016

The auditorium darkened. The music began and a small light appeared at the front of the room; then more. Students on stage danced and waved lanterns on ropes for an impressive musical light show to kick off the 2016 SpartaHack hackathon.

 

Students came from all over the world to attend this hackathon on the East Lansing campus. Over 200 universities were represented among the applicants. In addition to a number of international students studying on American campus, I met students who traveled to the hackathon from India, Russia, Germany, and the Philippines.

AnnaMattDavidBrian My colleague Brian Sherwin arrived in East Lansing the day before the hackathon to host an Azure workshop for 30 students - showing them how to use the cloud platform to enhance their applications. Ann Lergaard joined us a day later and we did our best to answer student questions and help them build better projects. Late Friday night, I delivered a tech talk showing off some of the services available in Azure.

Microsoft offered a prize for the best hack using our technology. It was won be 2 students who built an application that allowed users to take a photo of text with their iPhone and, in response to voice commands, read back any part of that text. The project combined Microsoft's Project Oxford OCR API with an Amazon Echo and its Alexa platform, an iPhone app, and a Firebase database.

A couple other cool hacks were:

  • ValU, an app that used Microsoft Excel to analyze historical stock price data using Excel VBA scripts.
  • Spartifai, which modified a driver, allowing a Kinect device to be used with a MacBook.

JazzBand A hackathon is an event at which students and others come together and build software and/or hardware projects in small teams over the course of a couple days. I attend a lot of hackathons and SpartaHack was one of the better organized that I've seen. Over 500 students spent the weekend building a wide variety of impressive projects - often with technology they had not touched prior to that weekend. The organizers also did a great job of providing fun activities beyond just hacking. A jazz band and a rock band each performed a set for students to enjoy during a break; a Super Smash Brothers tournament was scheduled; and a Blind Coding Contest challenged students to write code without compiling or testing to see if it would run correctly the first time in front of an audience. 

Snowman As sponsors of the event, we tried to provide some fun as well. We gave away prizes for building a snowman and for tweeting about open source technology. We also provided some loaner hardware for students; and we spent a lot of time mentoring students, which resulted in a lack of sleep this weekend.

The MSU campus has changed a great deal since I earned my undergraduate degree there decades ago. It has even changed since my son graduated from there 4 years ago. But it still felt like a homecoming for me.

 

 

Friday, 11 March 2016 16:42:00 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
# Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Earlier this week, dozens of technologists from the Microsoft DX Team met in San Diego for a team hackathon.

Some brought projects they started back home; some brought hardware with them to control via Bluetooth or USB cable or through the Internet; some brought an idea for a software project; some for a hardware project.

I came with a desire to learn more about Azure Machine Learning. I was inspired by the work that my teammate Jennifer Marsman was doing analyzing EEG data with AML. (link)

I began by walking through a couple tutorials: here and here.

Then I tried it myself. AML provides some sample data sources, so I imported the xxx data. I cleaned the data and applied a Category algorithm.

Machine Learning seems complex and the AML tools are not all intuitive when you first begin working with them; but they are not difficult to master. And the graphical interface of ML Studio lowers the learning curve considerably.

I'll provide more details and instructions about this project in a future blog post.

For now, my message is that building something yourself is the best way to learn any technology. Pick a project, set aside some time, and build it. I know that not every company invests in a day of hacking like mine did, so many of you will need to invest your own time in order to get this benefit. But it’s worth it.

My project wasn't nearly as sexy as some created by my colleagues. But my knowledge of Machine Learning is an order of magnitude greater than it was a week ago.

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My Machine Learning experiment

Wednesday, 23 September 2015 22:48:13 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Thursday, 28 May 2015

Sometimes, my job throws me an unexpected and pleasant curve. After spending a few months, travelling the country and teaching the fundamentals of Web Development and Cloud Development, I was asked to join my team in Redmond, where we would spend a couple days building some cool projects.

As is true with most trips I make, I arrived without a plan. Fortunately, I was assigned to a team and some of my teammates had been planning what we would build. Jennifer Marsman has been researching the Big Data capabilities within Azure for months, so she suggested that we build something that will utilize these tools. Tim Benroeck suggested an idea that would integrate social media with TV watching, so we did that.

Tim noticed that many people enjoy watching a live TV event while interacting with others over social media. But that experience is nearly impossible if you record the TV show and watch it the following day - Twitter has moved on and it's difficult to go back into the Twitter stream and find Tweets that are relevant for each point in the show (especially if you want to avoid spoilers).

So we built a system that would save to Azure storage all tweets for a set of hashtags during a given time and capture the time of the tweet, along with other relevant metadata. A user could then play back the show later and immediately start the relevant saved Twitter stream at the same point. Tweets would flow by in simulated real time, so the viewer could read social media reactions to The Bachelor's choices or to the death of someone's favorite Game of Thrones character.

The system used HDInsight STORM technology from Azure to retrieve Tweets containing a given set of Hashtags (e.g., "#GameOfThrones" and "#GoT") and push them into a Hadoop HBASE database, saving all metadata about each tweet, including the time and source. Tweets were imported in real time and in "archive" mode (we queried old tweets) using the TweetInvi API. We then allowed users to start "Playing" the tweets at a given time and displaying them in the same order and with the same delay as they were originally tweeted. Viewers could then start watching last night's show and begin the archived Twitter stream at the time the show originally aired and enjoy the social media experience along with the show.

I spent most of my time working on the user interface - a Windows 10 application built with HTML5 and WinJS. It gave me my first experience writing a Windows 10 app and my first significant experience with WinJS.

Many people from the product teams were on hand to help us.

This was a great learning experience for me personally and for the rest of my team.

We dubbed our creation "TweetDVR".  You can view the source code at  https://github.com/jennifermarsman/TweetDVR

Thursday, 28 May 2015 09:12:58 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)
# Monday, 23 March 2015
Monday, 23 March 2015 12:37:15 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
# Thursday, 12 March 2015

March 6-8, I attended Hack The Anvil hackathon at Purdue University. About 350 student hackers - all from Purdue - attended this hackathon. I was joined by my colleague Brian Sherwin for most of the event and by Sarah Sexton on Sunday.

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Following the opening ceremony, I delivered a 30-minute tech talk describing cloud computing and Microsoft Azure I showed how to use Azure Web Sites, Azure Virtual Machines, and Azure Mobile Services. Although we didn’t offer a prize (as Microsoft often does at these events), a number of teams decided to incorporate Azure into their projects.

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We spent much of the weekend helping people debug their code. In addition to questions about Kinect and Azure, students asked questions about JavaScript and interfaces and HTTP, updating the Java SDK on a MacBook. 3 different teams set up node on Azure used Brian Sherwin's blog post (http://briansherwin.com/blog/2015/03/hack-tools-1-node-js-on-azure-with-linux-vm/) as a reference.

  • The best projects I saw using Microsoft projects were:
    An application that used Kinect to change the color and intensity of lights based on the user's hand gestures. This project integrated Python code with the C# code using the Kinect SDK. Brian Sherwin this team use the Kinect SDK and requested a copy of their source code. David Giard recorded an interview with the team.
  • A portal that allows video game enthusiasts to find other players with similar interests and to schedule multi-player games with one another. The portal was built on Azure Web Sites, the data was stored in SQL Azure and exposed via Azure Mobile Services
  • A Tampermonkey Chrome plugin built on Azure web sites that displays the text of a linked page below the link.

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Some other interesting projects were:

  • "ShotBot" - a robot bartender
  • Gloves that interact with a Wii remote to allow users to control mouse pointer movements from across the room.
  • "SmartFridge" - an Android application that allows users to scan the bar codes of the items in your refrigerator and keep track of when each item expires and when it is time to buy a new item.
  • A Java-based app to assist Dungeons & Dragons "Dragonmasters" to create the environments used in D&D.

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Many students integrated .NET or Azure into their application because we were there to help them.

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Purdue will be hosting a multi-school hackathon (BoilerMake) in the fall and I hope to attend this as well.

HackTheAnvil Photos

Thursday, 12 March 2015 14:07:00 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
# Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Microsoft sponsored the HackIllinois hackathon held at the University of Illinois February 27-March 1, 2015. Approximately 900 students attended. The following people from Microsoft worked on site:

  • Bill Fink, Technical Evangelist
  • David Giard, Technical Evangelist
  • Martin Schray, Technical Evangelist
  • Sarah Sexton, Technical Evangelist
  • Paul Sledd, Recruiter

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Of course, students love free stuff, so we came armed with some prizes: We gave away a t-shirt to anyone who completed a brief survey. When we ran out of t-shirts, we gave away books, stencils,mugs, and stickers. From those who completed the survey, we drew a name to win a Surface Pro 2.  William Su of Ga Tech won this drawing. We offered a HoodiePillow and a free Azure pass to anyone who wanted to incorporate Azure into their weekend hack. 42 people took advantage of this offer.

Throughout the weekend, the four evangelists answered questions from teams using Azure and other Microsoft technologies.

On the final day, we offered a Dell Venue 8 Pro to each member of the team with the best use of Azure. 18 teams completed an application with an Azure component.

It was a difficult choice and we debated for some time. One team hosted an impressive translation application on Azure; another created a GPS application that displayed the location of the user's dog and whether it had left their yard.

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We awarded the prize to a team from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology for their Flock application - a system built on a Pebble watch to communicate restaurant recommendations to friends. Most of the application logic was in an Azure web service that called out to APIs exposed by Twillio and MailJet. The Pebble watch called to the Azure API. This team spent some time at our booth asking questions of Bill and Martin. You can watch an interview with this team at Technology and Friends.

Bill Fink brought his Kinect Photo Booth and it was a big hit. Many students were drawn to our booth when they walked past and saw themselves in front of a dinosaur or live volcano on the giant monitor at our table. The Photo Booth sent out 102 emails over the weekend.

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Overall, the event was a great success - Students came away with a positive impression of Microsoft and many used Azure and Kinect that probably would not have had we not been there. Many students were unaware what Azure even is. They were excited when they found out how it could help them and their projects. One team planned to use IBM for their back-end data storage; but after struggling with the IBM service and talking with Bill, they switched to Azure and completed their project successfully.

HackIllinois Photos

Wednesday, 11 March 2015 13:48:00 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
# Monday, 02 March 2015
Monday, 02 March 2015 19:44:28 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
# Monday, 24 November 2014
Monday, 24 November 2014 10:25:41 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)