Students team up to work on a project together at QueensHack.
A student shares his ideas with his team members during the 24-hour hackathon.
Lin Ochoa, right, and his teammate developed a web app that calculates tolls for users. Their team won third place.
Armed with laptops, fueled by pizza and teeming with innovative ideas, nearly 100 high school and college students attended the first QueensHack event last weekend at the Falchi Building in Long Island City.
The two-day hackathon was planned and organized by two Queens students, Liang Gao, a freshman at Stony Brook University, and Najm Skeikh, a recent graduate of Bayside High School.
With tech on the rise in the borough, Gao and Sheikh wanted to promote computer science by creating their own hackathon for students.
“We’ve been to a lot of hackathons, but we realized that there’s not that many in New York City,” said Gao, a Flushing resident. “If there is one, it’s always in Manhattan. Queens is always getting the short end of the stick, so we thought, why don’t we start a hackathon in Queens?”
Gao said over the course of 24 hours, students brainstorm ideas, find a team and try to turn the ideas into reality. About 100 students, half of whom are in high school and the other half in college, came to both compete and learn.
Gao said they received more than 400 applicants in a four-week period. No experience was necessary to participate, and some students selected for the event had never participated in a coding project.
“There’s not that much of a criteria, so they don’t need to know anything about programming,” Gao said. “We know everyone will be learning at a hackathon, so it doesn’t matter what their level is.”
Gao and Sheikh began planning for the weekend event back in November 2015, beginning with a few months looking for an appropriate venue in Queens. Luckily, Coalition for Queens (C4Q), a nonprofit that aims to create and foster a tech community in the borough, has an office big enough to fit about 100 students.
When that was secured, they sought sponsors and mentors who could help out during the event.
“It’s almost like a full-time job for us to get everything organized, get sponsors and make sure that the event happens,” Gao said.
The Stony Brook freshman, who is studying computer science, got his start with tech back in middle school. By the 8th grade, he created his first website.
Gao then honed his skills at Bayside High School, where he learned more about computer programming.
“From that point on, I wanted to do something with coding,” he said.
Sheikh told a similar story. The Floral Park resident started off playing video games, and eventually thought about being the person who actually creates the games.
An art student at Bayside High School, his first step was looking up online workshops and resources. During his sophomore year, he started getting into coding. The following year, he started attending hackathons and other tech events at colleges like University of Pennsylvania and University of Michigan.
“It’s a cool thing because a lot of these hackathons are hosted by different universities,” he said. “They provide travel reimbursements. It’s a good way to travel and meet a lot of like-minded people.”
Sheikh was also part of an initiative called Generation Tech, a summer entrepreneurial program for teenagers. Over the course of six weeks, he joined other teens in creating mock companies.
Sheikh said after attending the program, he began thinking about hosting a hacking event for Queens students and making the borough “the next Silicon Valley of New York City.”
“The hackathon itself was just an idea for them to meet like-minded people, network, learn something new and build something incredible over the course of the weekend,” he said.
After the inaugural hackathon, Sheikh said they’re planning to make QueensHack a biannual event.
Lin Ochoa, a third-year student at Queens College studying computer science, heard about the event through his school’s emails.
QueensHack was Ochoa’s second hackathon. Although he’s fairly new, he came with a friend and was already working on a project early on in the weekend.
“What we’re working on is a web app that will help calculate the tolls from Point A to Point B,” he said on Saturday. “All you have to do is put in where you want to go and where you’re starting out.”
Using data from maps and toll prices, Ochoa’s team put together an app called TollGO that won third place. First place went to a group of students that created Tai Chi Kinect, an app that allows users to practice the martial art with the help of a robot instructor.
Ochoa said he’s currently interested in data science, but isn’t sure how to get into it. Attending QueensHack, he said, is one way to start.
“This is a great environment to learn and I’m very appreciative,” he said.