Game, set, hack: IBM and Wimbledon team up for hackathon

The reputation of hacking is changing. Previously thought of purely in negative terms, the work produced at a number of organised “hackathon” events is highlighting that much good can come from hacking. Of course, this depends upon your definition of the term, but many computer programmers are attempting to reclaim the word, moving it away from security breaches and toward a general interest in the coding subculture.

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It was with the latter in mind that IBM and Wimbledon teamed up for their recent hackathon – just the latest entry in a long-standing partnership between the two organisations. For two days earlier this month, IBM invited a select group of developers to create apps that would improve the Wimbledon experience for spectators.

There was a wide range of ideas on show at the event, ranging from a ticket sharing app to software that tracks spectator movements to help alleviate congestion issues. The winning idea came from Matt Wellings and Edward Wills, who came up with a more effective method of re-selling tickets. Their app, Serial Box, reduced the time between ticket return and resale from 20 minutes to less than five seconds, while enabling fans to take home a physical copy of their ticket as a souvenir.

Using small NFC tags, each ticket is given a unique ID so that when spectators leave the event, they can drop their ticket into a box and it is automatically re-registered as an available ticket via firmware and a native app. By improving this process, the app not only makes it easier for fans to attend matches, but it also improves the atmosphere at Wimbledon by creating fuller courts.

During the development process there was a real sense of collaboration in the air, something that is widely encouraged at hackathons. Generally speaking, developers at these events have not met before, but pair up based on their complementary skillsets and ideas for the competition. The mix of backgrounds and opinions is one of the key factors for generating innovative software solutions.

The event was being run in conjunction with Rewired State, an organisation focused on finding digital solutions to business challenges. One of the ambassadors for the firm’s under-18s branch, Ryan Oliver, was selected as a developer at the hackathon and explained that, despite being associated with the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world, the atmosphere at the Wimbledon hackathon was relaxed.

For this particular event, participants were paid to attend, but they were given a broad brief that allowed for plenty of creative freedom. Some hackathons have been accused of setting unrealistic expectations, particularly given the limited time frame that developers have to work in, but attendees at the IBM event were in good spirits.

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In fact, even if Serial Box never becomes a commercial application, the innovation being fostered by events like the Wimbledon hackathon bodes well for the future of software development. Although more still needs to be done to encourage women to get involved with coding – there was only one female participant at the Wimbledon event – hackathons remain a great way of getting young people interested in programming.