September 30, 2011

My Experience at the NYC Foursquare Hackathon


I had a great experience at the NYC Foursquare Hackathon held September 17-18th, and wanted to share some highlights of the impressive event.

The Participants

Over 100 individuals attended the event in NY, however taking into account the global reach, this number is more like 500+. Foursquare did a tremendous job at making this a live worldwide event. Other participating cities were San Francisco, Tokyo, Paris, as well as many other unofficial localized sites. Individuals had the opportunity to get in front of the crowd and pitch an idea if they weren't on a team.

It was interesting that a bunch of hackers didn't have a predetermined concept, and simply said "Hey! I am good with photoshop and JSON, let me know if you are interested in working together." There were also individuals/teams that were ready to go with a concept. The Venmo team had matching t-shirts, and seemed like a well-trained intramural basketball squad. Overall, everyone was extremely friendly, and Foursquare employees walked around to help and answer questions.

Creating a Global Event

Using live webcams at these official locations, a multi-cam 'command center' screen was projected on the wall. This helped create a sense of participation, community, and fun. Another effect from this was increasing the sense of competition. These hackers weren't really going to get tremendous value from the prizes, its about the clout they would achieve amongst their peers. The larger the group of developers, the greater the exposure you can get from this weekend. Another way of creating this weekend-hacker-community is using an innovative website to DJ the broadcasted music.

Besides caffeine, candy, and pizza's music is a driving force for developers. Foursquare used a community-based music site called . This allowed individuals to take turns being the DJ, chat, upload their favorite tunes, vote, dance as an avatar, and jam-out to the same tunes across the globe. Even when I went home at night, I logged in just to 'feel like I was there'. Certainly a great tool in building an event. Perfect for hackathons.

New Feature Marketing

Foursquare used the event to promote their API v2 features - great for channeling the excitement of the hackathon into awareness, and showcasing new API's and partners. Some of the features included:

  • OAuth2 only, which should be easier to use (even usable from pure Javascript!), and easier for us to monitor.
  • JSON only, which behind the scenes allows us to significantly improve performance.
  • New envelope for responses, which among other things provides a consistent place for error responses.
  • New endpoints, such as user badges, venue herenow, user venuehistory, and bundled requests.
  • Significantly more consistent and REST-ful.
  • API explorer


General Assembly is a great venue for breakouts, whiteboarding, huddles, and large announcements. There is a reason its picked for hackathons. I spent some time brainstorming with the creator of, Oscar Torres. He has won previous hackathons, and was willing to start from a clean slate with ideas. We came up with some concepts of bridging emotion into the foursquare world, as well as using the public 'Tips' data. Unfortunately, these didn't manifest into an app, but could at some point. Oscar pursued another concept regarding peak check-in times

The Apps

About 100 apps were created over the span of the event. A good amount of them were a mashup of data with foursquare's capabilities (e.g., city demographic data + checkin data). The more challenging apps attempted to use Foursquare's new push API. As I spoke with a number of developers, using this new feature was't an easy one. To enable the functionality involved tough hosting certificates, and tons of troubleshooting. Nevertheless, these relentless hackers made some things happen. Below are some of my favorite apps:

  • How Blank Are You (People's Choice Winner) - Howblankareyou crosses your foursquare checkins with public census data and shows you demographic information on the places you go.
  • PlaceFace (People's Choice Winner) - Make dynamic twitter and foursquare profile pictures which update with each checkin!
  • Accessible NYC - Accessible NYC, is an app to facilitate people who want to roam around NYC in wheelchairs. The app shows, the nearest train stations that have wheelchair access, the nearest parks that have accessible bathrooms, and also other parks/playgrounds that are accessible. Built using the Foursquare Venues API and the NYC Gov data.
  • DigiDJ (People's Choice Winner) - The alpha release of DiGiDJ is the first ever music app that lets you request a song from a crowded club floor. It works similar to a jukebox. You can browse songs until you find what you want and then queue it up for everyone to hear. Foursquare + Spotify + Venmo
  • ...and the Grand Prize Winner announced yesterday on Foursquare's blog -

    "Plan your next trip uses our Explore API to generate a personalized two-day itinerary for your next travel destination. Developer Benjamin Netter in Paris, France will receive the coveted foursquare title belt and dinner with Naveen. A hacker's dream come true!"

I also had the opportunity to meet with Jean-Luc David from the YellowAPI team in Canada. The speed at which he implements is amazing. He created a mashup previously called which is a visualization tool that's quite a good app. Its great to see a talented guy like Jean-Luc travel down to NYC to be part of the event. I'm really interested in the YellowAPI and what mashups he is brewing up in the future.

In closing - I'm definitely looking forward to the next event. Especially as 4SQ's API evolves and we see how developers embrace this industry-leading location-based startup.

I have a few ideas already in the cue for the next one. I'm looking forward to Mashery partnering with the NYC hackers to make something great!