Decoding Durhack: 24 Hours at one of the UK’s Biggest Hackathons

Scroll for coding, VR goggles, and too much pizza…


Durham University recently hosted a 24 hour hacking event (that’s right, 24 hours STRAIGHT), but we know the burning question is what on earth went down in that time? With over 1000 sign-ups, the eighth annual Durhack broke its own records. We spoke to the organisers for all the details…

What is Durhack?

Durhack is an annual 24 hour “hackathon” hosted by Durham University in which teams compete to code the project inspired by a theme set by the organisers. This year’s theme was “infinity” as it was the eighth event (see what they did there?), and teams were encouraged to code websites, software, and applications that promote sustainability or push the boundaries of tech.

While at its core Durhack is a competition, the organisers told us that “more than anything we want to encourage team spirit and participation at any level, whether you’re a master hacker or a complete beginner, you’re welcome to join in the fun at Durhack”.

Image via Augustin Gorbatenco, Shadow Lau and Chris Ray

The countdown begins

On the morning of Saturday 4th November, participants from all over the country arrived at Durham’s very own TLC, ready to compete for points, prizes, and the untouchable glory of being Durhack’s champion. Sponsors, organisers, and participants gathered for an 11am start, ready to kick off the event with an opening ceremony.

The event’s lead organiser Quinn Dines gave a short speech welcoming the entrants from far and wide, before a few words from sponsors such as Marshall Wace, BidFX, and Durham County Council.

Image via Augustin Gorbatenco, Shadow Lau and Chris Ray

Before the hacking could commence, they needed to make sure that everybody had a team – solo applicants could attend a team formation exercise to make sure they could get really stuck in and meet other tech enthusiasts. As well as this, any nervous beginners could take part in a beginner’s hacking workshop, just to get them familiar with the basics and level that coding playing field a bit.

Image via Augustin Gorbatenco, Shadow Lau and Chris Ray

Blast off!

At 12pm the time came at last for the teams to dive into their projects. This year’s space themed event really came through as teams shot for the moon with their innovative ideas! Jess, a participant from our very own Durham University, said: “It started off as a brainstorming session, but the lines of code just started coming together into a real, working thing”.

Image via Augustin Gorbatenco, Shadow Lau and Chris Ray

As far as my non-hacker brain can understand, there is one big challenge set by Durhack itself which everyone has a chance at winning, but there are also opportunities to enter your work into mini challenges set by the sponsors if your project happens to fit their brief. For example, one sponsor provided VR goggles to inspire participants to use the technology, and one sponsor wanted teams to build a banking app aimed at young people that helps them manage their money (something I’m sure we can all agree, as students, would be particularly useful).

Image via Augustin Gorbatenco, Shadow Lau and Chris Ray

Hackathon highlights

The organisers have shared some stats with us about the diversity numbers at this year’s Durhack. Clary, one of the team, noted that “it was great to see so many women getting involved in what is often a male dominated event”. Amazingly, Durhack boasted a participation rate with approximately 30 percent non-male attendees, bringing it closer to an even gender split than the overall composition of the computer science course at Durham University.

Image via Augustin Gorbatenco, Shadow Lau and Chris Ray

In fact, computer scientists only made up about 50 per cent of the participants. Understandably, next came physics, maths, and engineering. But there were even a few participants from arts subjects such as English, Law, and History. Clearly, Durhack isn’t only for those pursuing coding as a career.

Organiser Quinn’s favourite part of the weekend (when he had the time) was “watching people engage in the challenges and putting loads of effort into their ideas, while having a ton of fun at the same time”.

Image via Augustin Gorbatenco, Shadow Lau and Chris Ray

Less hacking, more slacking

Now in a 24 hour event, there’s got to be some things to balance the work with the play. Organisers and volunteers worked hard around the clock to make sure the participants had access to respite from coding. Activities included a Mario Kart tournament, slideshow karaoke, and of course… a midnight pizza feast. Fun fact: Durhack put in so many orders for pizza that night, that the Durham Domino’s shut down access to the public. So, if you couldn’t get your pizza fix that night, now you know why.

Image via Augustin Gorbatenco, Shadow Lau and Chris Ray

Aside from the challenge, each team was allocated to one of four  “Megateams” named after the constellations Orion, Lyra, Cygnus, and Pegasus. In a Harry Potter house style competition, the teams battled for points through the night in challenges set by the organisers. “The challenges got pretty ridiculous”, said Sumeera, a volunteer.

“I think one of them was to go up to an organiser and give them a pick-up line for some points”. Other point-worthy missions included following the Durhack Instagram page, and tracking down the lead organiser to find out an interesting fact about him. The organisers told us that the Megateams were formed to encourage team-spirit, rather than test coding skills.

Image via Augustin Gorbatenco, Shadow Lau and Chris Ray

Participants could exchange these points for some exclusive Durhack merch including bottles, tote bags, stickers, and notebooks. (Pssst… they even let me swipe some after this interview).

‘VR the champions’

The competition came to a close at 12pm on Sunday 5th November, after a long night of participants coding their socks off. Final projects were submitted to the panel of judges consisting of Durham University staff,  Durham alumni, and Durhack organisers of years gone by.

I asked Quinn what the judges were looking for and he said there were a couple of criteria that the winning submissions had to meet. First and foremost they had to be functional and useful, but the judges were also looking intently for creativity and originality.

Image via Augustin Gorbatenco, Shadow Lau and Chris Ray

The final winners came from a team presenting “Handwrite AR”. The project incorporated the sponsors’ VR headsets to create a project which aims to support dyslexic students by scanning real handwriting for incorrect spellings or formations of letters. In short, they made a spellcheck for handwriting: Pretty cool, right? The overall winners went home with a levitating Bluetooth speaker each, and the sponsors’ champions went home with winnings such as Sony headphones and cash prizes!

Image via Augustin Gorbatenco, Shadow Lau and Chris Ray

Touchdown triumph

The weekend ended with a closing ceremony thanking the participants, organisers, volunteers, and sponsors. When we asked Quinn how he thought it went overall, he said: “It turned out amazing, all the hard work was worth it. We’ve been organising since November last year – it was a plan that came into motion with the question of: Can we double Durhack? And we did!”

Image via Augustin Gorbatenco, Shadow Lau and Chris Ray

With the biggest turnout on record, Durhack certainly seemed like a huge success. The organisers are already busy getting started for next year, which we’re sure will be bigger and better than ever. In the meantime, I hope everyone who participated is catching up on sleep…

Featured image via Augustin Gorbatenco, Shadow Lau and Chris Ray. 

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