Hackathon diary: 24 hours of creativity and coding

By Ryan Boudinot

Hackathons are like reality TV competitions combined with coding and sleep deprivation. They’re manic, time-compressed scrambles to assemble a team, agree on a project, and produce some sort of workable demo of an app before everyone passes out. When Manager of Infrastructure Modernization Alex Zadorozhnyi put out the call for SADA hackathon projects and participants, I couldn’t resist.

SADA’s 2021 hackathon included six teams of five members each, all of us working remotely. Alex randomized the team formation process, which meant that we couldn’t prepare anything with our teams ahead of time. Everyone was simply tossed into a team without any prior knowledge of who your teammates would be or what areas of expertise they might possess. In addition, many of the participants in this year’s event hailed from SADA’s Global Delivery Center in Armenia, which has a 12-hour jump on those of us working in the North America PST time zone. 

Having no clue who my teammates would be, I decided to come to the hackathon prepared with a slide deck describing the World Integration Loop (WIL), a platform that integrates real-world environmental data with video games. The concept is straightforward: a funding mechanism turns digital goods platforms into sources of revenue for conservation and stewardship organizations, which in turn provide earth data that triggers events and rewards in games. Games are therefore designed to become more fun the more the earth measurably heals.

I’ve worked on this platform independently since March 2020, consulting with a variety of land stewards, scientists, startups, game studios, and experts at the UN Environmental Programme. In the summer of 2021, I launched a startup called Machines & Dreamland to push the concept forward. I was excited to see how the World Integration Loop might grow in the pressure cooker atmosphere of a hackathon at SADA. 

Fortunately, I was assigned a rock-solid team. My team consisted of Solutions Architect Suni Mathews, Cloud Infrastructure Engineer Ahmad Nawaz, and Associate Cloud Support Engineers Davit Nazlukhanyan and Ashot Arushanyan. I participated from Seattle, Suni from Toronto, Ahmad from Sacramento, and both Davit and Ashot from Yerevan, Armenia. 

As our team met each other for the first time, the last thing I wanted was to tell anyone what to do. Leading the team meant creating a welcoming space where everyone could bring their individual talents to the concept. By focusing on the process and making sure everyone’s contribution was honored, I knew that the end result would be better than any of us could imagine. 

I presented a few slides describing the World Integration Loop, then asked my team what part of the project would be most fun for them to work on, having found that a sense of fun is a reliable indicator that you’ve discovered that sweet spot between being challenged and exercising your expertise. Ahmad suggested we could integrate real-world earth data in a version of Super Mario Brothers, coded in Python. Suni offered her insights into climatological datasets, and knew just what data we needed to ingest using BigQuery, Google Cloud’s serverless data warehouse. 

Within minutes, we hatched a plan to integrate a dataset that tracks global deforestation into our game so that trees in Mario’s classic side-scroller would appear and disappear according to fluctuations in the loss of real trees in the physical world. 

As Suni and Ahmad started cranking on our demo, it was bedtime in Armenia. We knew that when Davit and Ashot returned freshly rested in 12 hours, they could polish our rough data visualizations, so part of our work involved prepping our assets for a smooth handoff to Europe. 

Every few hours, all SADA’s hackathon participants joined a meeting room for check-ins and words of encouragement from Alex, CTO Miles Ward, and Associate CTOs Jenn Viau and Peter-Mark Verwoerd. For one check-in, Alex encouraged us to wear ugly sweaters. I unearthed an Icelandic wool sweater from my closet that I hadn’t worn in years. When I shared an update of my team’s progress to the group, the sweater triggered an intense allergic reaction that made my sinuses explode as I struggled to speak coherently about geospatial data dashboards and digital goods marketplaces.

Hackathons typically culminate in presentations by the teams, and in our case that meant a 7am meeting. Around midnight, as I shuffled slides and hammered down copy for our presentation, a check-in meeting suddenly erupted in another tab of my browser. I heard voices from all over the world groggily exchange hellos, a community of innovators pushing technology to places where imagination challenges the unknown.

Before I crashed around 3AM, I asked my smart speaker to wake me up at 5:30. I crawled out of bed to find that the Armenian members of our team had added some polish to the dashboard visuals Suni had created, and Ahmad had succeeded in pulling together a playable game. It all looked super cool. Best of all, our mechanism for representing real-world environmental data in a game world actually worked.

Watching the other demos, I was inspired anew by SADA’s deep bench of engineering talent, and the spirit of creativity and risk-taking that has turned the company into a global cloud transformation leader. I presented our project, hoped I was speaking in complete sentences, then bid farewell to my teammates in far away time zones. That we’d end up winning the competition was just icing on the cake.

The hackathon proved to me that an idea I’ve been obsessing over during the pandemic could actually work. I’m more convinced than ever that the data we collect about the world in which we live will influence the worlds in which we play in increasingly profound ways. One day, people might even find it odd that there was a time when video games didn’t remove plastic from our oceans and carbon from our skies. 

With the cloud, we have a unique opportunity to renegotiate the relationship between technology, humanity, and the natural world upon which they depend. I know that with the kind of collaboration, expertise, and imagination that was on ample display over 24 hours at SADA, we have everything we need to build the Green Metaverse. 

But hey, it’s not like I’m claiming video games can save the planet. I’m just saying players can.

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