Pivotal Labs Competes to Hack for Good at PayPal Battlehack 2014

March 11, 2015 Maya Kenedy

featured-battlehackBattlehack is a competition hosted by PayPal which invites teams of one to four hackers to build “the Ultimate Hack for Good” within 24 hours. The goal is to create software or hardware incorporating the company’s products which make your community or the world a better place. The event takes place in two rounds: a series of qualifiers in multiple cities around the world, and then the world finals in San Jose in the fall. Team Pivotal Labs took part in Battlehack 2014, winning the Toronto qualifying round and finishing in second place at the World Finals, just behind Team Tel Aviv.

First Round: Qualifiers

The 2014 Qualifying competition took place in 14 cities worldwide: Miami, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Tel Aviv, Istanbul, Toronto, Berlin, Warsaw, Sydney, Singapore, Mexico City, London, and Moscow. Over 3000 hackers attended in total, with 51 teams attending the Toronto qualifier alone.

Each city’s event offered seemingly endless local food, swag, massage tables, and abundant mentorship opportunities with the local judges and sponsors. The members of the winning teams at each qualifier received a viking battle axe trophy and an all-expenses-paid trip to the World Finals at PayPal headquarters.

Second Round: World Finals

Following all of the qualifiers, the 14 finalists from across the world went head to head at the World Finals. The team that emerged victorious went home with $100,000 and a set of gold axes.

Mentorship played a large role in the finals experience. Leading up to the hack, we attended workshops and dinners with members of the eBay / PayPal executive team, as well as incredibly knowledgeable engineers and product experts, to help us refine our ideas and improve our pitch and presentation. We were able to run through our demos and pitches several times to get actionable feedback from our mentors, and they were on hand throughout the entire process to offer insights on UI and UX decisions, as well as API integrations.

Team Pivotal Labs: Toronto Champions!

Our team was made up of three Pivots—Ernst Riemer, Christopher Larsen, and myself—as well as one former Pivot, Alex Christodoulou. Using the agile development processes that we practice on a daily basis, we planned our projects to ensure we’d complete our minimal viable products (MVPs) within the allotted time, and build the products in shippable units. Thanks to this process, we had a demo-able product at every stage of the hack. Much of the feedback we received centred around our efficiency and productivity. Other attendees were quite impressed at how confidently we were able to estimate our timelines and how calm we were throughout the weekend.

In the first round, we built Security Blanket, a hardware and software product that helps find lost people. It incorporated a beacon device, an iOS app, and a Rails/MySQL/sidekiq web app and backend. The Security Blanket system was made up of two parts:

The first is a network of phones, computers, and other devices that are connected by having one of the applications installed. Security Blanket also included a “plugin”, or SDK, that can be included in any application. This enables other organizations with apps to let their users choose to help find lost children as well. Data would only ever be shared with law enforcement and a child’s information and/or location would never be made public.

The second part lets parents attach a bluetooth beacon to their child and register that beacon’s unique signal with the system. It’s up the parent to decide how much or how little personal information is included, and none of it is stored on the servers—anything identifiable stays solely on the parent’s phone or device. If the child goes missing, the parent can report this through the mobile app or website, which immediately triggers the network of devices to start scanning for their child’s unique signal.

Once the network has found the child’s beacon signal, law enforcement officers can locate the child through the dashboard’s map view, and coordinate search efforts appropriately. The more devices picking up the signal, the more accurate the location becomes.

When we moved onto the World Finals we had to come up with a brand new idea to build and pitch. This time, we built Your Eyes, an iOS app backed by a Rails app which integrates Braintree and Venmo APIs to help the visually impaired. This app features a completely audio-based interface for shopping and making payments, audio and voice two-factor authentication, and object recognition and training. From the first ‘Siri, open Your Eyes’ command, to the final payment confirmation, users interacted with the app through voice only. It was a tight race, with judging going into overtime to decide the winners, but we ended up in second place at the finals.

Preparation & Insights

As experienced hackers, we’ve learned that preparation is essential to hackathon success. The first step usually involves a series of brainstorming sessions which identify potential problems or areas of need, and then narrowing down the list of ideas until we’ve settled on something we feel is a winner.

The short timeline of the Battlehack process forces you to focus and quickly identify what problem you are trying to solve. The next step is to carefully define an MVP by asking pointed questions: What are the critical pieces of this solution? How simply can we accomplish these pieces?

Once we’ve finalized an MVP, and are comfortable that we can build it within the time available, we’ll usually sketch out some simple wireframes to nail down the user flows and make sure we’re covering all of the critical use cases.

This process also helps break the problem down into discrete, shippable units, which flows into breaking the problem down further into user stories, and populating a Pivotal Tracker backlog. At this point, we prioritize stories based on importance and any dependencies, identify who is responsible for building which components in what order, and capture any important details that may be lost in the rush.

Participating in hackathons like Battlehack 2014 has been tremendously educational for us, both as engineers and product managers. They also provide a fantastic opportunity to showcase how effective Pivotal Labs’ agile development process can be, even on highly challenging projects within a tight timeframe.

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