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Betting on my Brains at the 2017 Reno Hackathon

As I stepped off the plane into Reno, I was instantly greeted by the bitter weather. My exposed hand began to go numb from the wind as I rushed across the runway into the airport, only to be greeted by rows of slot machines, their flashing neon lights leading the way down the halls out to the baggage claim. I had no clue where anything was in Reno, nor any idea of what to expect at my first Hackathon, and to top it off, I didn’t even think to pack gloves! How was I going to compete in a weekend-long investment conference? Eventually, I found my way to a taxi and catch a ride to the hotel, where I would later meet fellow journalism student Sophie Proctor. The cold weather couldn’t hide my anxious breaths. Several hours and flights later, we congregated in the hotel room, nervous yet determined for the weekend ahead of us at the 4th Annual J-School Hackathon.

That was how the Hackathon worked: after registering a place in the competition, students and administrators from across the country met up in a designated university. After a night of introductions, students and facilitators were separated into groups and then given a design task. This year, the challenge, hosted at the Reynolds School of Journalism at University of Nevada Reno, was to create a chatbot, a computer program conducted with auditory and textual methods, to further enhance a media or journalism influence.

The first day of the Hackathon began at promptly 8:00 A.M., opening with an overview of rules and logistics by MediaShift Founder Mark Glaser. An impressive speaker panel consisting of professors, editors, entrepreneurs and other technology experts and investors from businesses like ProPublica and Facebook followed Glaser’s speech. Each speech gave tips and detailed background of the uses of chatbots, how they worked and how to design and build them, as well as instructions on how to pitch each idea to the judges and investors.

Glaser described the Hackathon as an innovative way to get students to work with peers from different schools. “It’s a once in a lifetime experience for many students who don’t get this kind of training at their schools,” he says.

The teamwork aspect in the assigned group became an invaluable asset. My group consisted of four students: a journalism student from Melbourne, Australia, a business student from University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and a technology design student from University of Southern California, Annenberg aside from myself, a student from Hawaii studying journalism at PLNU.

Throughout the day, groups discussed ideas, designs and improvements, seeking help from facilitators, floating mentors, speakers and the general public around town. Investigative Journalism Pulitzer Prize Recipient Danielle Cervantes, also an adjunct professor at PLNU, was a mentor and facilitator this year at the Hackathon. “Working with all types of personalities, working under a deadline, working competitively: welcome to journalism,” says Cervantes. “Getting a practice run of how things are going to be on the job becomes invaluable.”

Cervantes was also the facilitator of a group consisting of a PLNU student who won the Hackathon in 2012, the same year another group with students from PLNU took first runner-up.

Celeste LeCompte, director of business development at ProPublica, emphasized in her speech to monetize their product. “You can’t get money from people if you don’t ask for it,” she says. Student groups took advantage of her advice by taking time out of their day to ask locals on the street and in nearby businesses on what sort of advantage they should capitalize on in a possible bot.

The winning chatbot, designed and pitched by a group including PLNU broadcast journalism student Sophie Proctor, was called Green Guide. It was geared toward the younger generations looking to remain financially stable but have no idea where to look for advice. Their bot would tackle this problem with advice and tools for financial success in a language that Millenials would understand, such as entertaining phrases and GIFs.

Proctor took the advice of Cervantes, saying she “kept it simple and direct.” The bot remained user-friendly and easy to explain to both investors and judges, enabling their win and allowing for connections to investors and recommendations from the judging panel. In an interview with University of Nevada, Reno writer Adriana Owens, Proctor says, “I came into this weekend not knowing what to expect at all but after working with my group and developing a startup that could actually be used, I think it’s something that I am going to explore in the future.”

Sophie Proctor wasn’t the only one with a newfound interest in startup technology. In my time at the Hackathon, I got to help design my own chatbot, meet with professionals across different businesses and media professions, and capitalize on the strengths of my peers while creating lasting friendships with my own group. As much as I contributed to the idea of my own (losing) chatbot, the final presentation was a beautiful display, consisting of original visual representations and data collected from the members of my team and presented by all of us in a way that we were proud of. What I didn’t expect from the Hackathon was to be so okay with not taking first. Not only did my classmate place first, but I realized—like so many others—just how capable we were of creating and following through on a project that once seemed so unattainable.

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