ConUHacks: winners’ submission sparks outrage online

The team found themselves at the center of controversy after winning first place

The winning team of Concordia’s ConUHacks event came under fire last weekend after accusations of violating competition rules were posted online.

ConUHacks, the event which the project was produced for, is a yearly competition during which teams must conceptualize and code an application in only 24 hours to impress judges and potentially win prizes. This “hackathon” is primarily organized by Concordia’s HackConcordia club.

NearByNow, the winning submission, was accused of being presented to judges under false pretence and omitting key lines of code to prove its authenticity. This led to an investigation into the validity of the winners’ application.

Although the accusations were proven false, the winning coders are now worried of online harassment. 

“I was confused. We all were,” said Samuel Chuang, a fourth-year computer science student at Concordia and one member of the winning team. “Honestly, I had to think to myself, maybe we did do something wrong.”

Chuang said everything went well during the competition, leaving the judges impressed. Their hard work was rewarded with first place. 

Six days later, Chuang found out about the controversy forming around their application.

A post on Concordia’s official Reddit page that called the team’s winning project fraudulent garnered the attention of many who had participated at the event. 

Soon, Chuang said he’d seen a post by an anonymous user on Concordia’s official engineering and computer science Discord server, suggesting users should flood the team’s LinkedIn pages with negative comments. 

“Hate on the project as much as you want but there’s a potential of ruining people’s reputation,”said Chuang.

Chuang and his team contacted Major League Hacking (MLH), who help run weekend-long hackathons like ConUHacks and partly oversee judgment. 

“We found what we would expect to see from a hackathon project built in just 24 hours,” said Ryan Swift, a member of the MLH who reviewed the team’s project.  

According to Swift, Chuang’s team was accused of faking the demonstration of their project. More specifically, by faking results given by the programmed A.I., which ran the application. They were also suspected of omitting the code which the A.I. had been programmed through- what’s known as a “neural network.” 

NearByNow shows users information about a storefront or company in real time once given a logo. This feature relies on multiple application programming interfaces (API), for example one from Google Maps. The A.I. then communicates with the API to produce the desired results. 

The neural network was not made public, which added to the accusers’ suspicions. Swift said his team verified its existence as well as its timestamps to confirm that it was coded during the hackathon. 

The team would also “hard-code” data given by the application. Hard-coding data means that the results given by the program are directly put into the code rather than obtained by prompts. According to Swift, this was done for simplicity’s sake and the team had done nothing to break the competition’s rules.

“Because they are developed in just a single weekend, hackers don’t typically follow industry-best practices,” said Swift. “Their projects are often laden with bugs, and many features aren’t fully completed.” 

Vatsa Shah, co-president of HackConcordia, the club responsible for organizing ConUHacks, said his team did not appreciate the public accusations of malicious intent towards the team. “Our team is always willing to investigate and review issues as they arise, but we prefer to do so in private specifically because of situations like this where public backlash can take over,” he said.

An official comment was written by the MLH under the original accusatory Reddit post stating that the investigation had been completed.


Hack to the future: Concordia’s hackathon is back

Back, whack, and ready to attack–a week of workshops by HackConcordia provides students with new skills.

Concordia’s hacker collective, HackConcordia, hosted various workshops to teach students and the public hacking skills this past week.

Hack Week is a way for students to prepare for the annual ConUHacks V, a hackathon at Concordia, where students come from all over North America to compete in a 24-hour contest. Participants get to create whatever they can imagine––hackathon projects can have any theme as long as it involves code.

“No one ever leaves a hackathon without learning something new,” said Zach Bys, the co-president of HackConcordia and a software engineering student.

Bys has participated in Hackathons for four years, and decided to help organize them because he wanted to give back to the collective. “[Hackathons] have done a lot for me in my career. Most of the skills I have now, that helped me get jobs, I’ve learnt those at different Hackathons,” he said.

ConUHacks has been taking place since 2014, with its first competition having roughly 300 participants. Bys said this year, there are over 750 participants total, with around 40 per cent being Concordia students.

With the increase in participants, Concordia Hackathon has gained over 38 sponsors, such as EB games, Telus, and Shutter Shock. Some sponsors host their own competitions during the hackathon and hand out various prizes.

Bys explained that his favourite creation by students so far was an app that used augmented reality to create live audio captioning, which creates live text when people talk, usually with the intention of helping people with a hearing impairment. Augmented reality is a technology that allows visual objects to interact with reality, such as the popular Pokemon Go app, where digital creatures interact with reality.

Another creation that stood out to Bys was a smart fridge that catalogued all of its contents, and then suggested recipes that could be made with the available food.

At Hackathon, you can let your creativity run wild,” said Bys, who explained that at work or school, it’s unusual for people to have a chance to be imaginative and innovative. “[At Hackathon], you can build anything you want and use technologies that you never had a chance to use at school, like augmented reality.”

Bys stated that with new advances in technology, new programming has become much more approachable for people. Over 10 years ago, it was incredibly difficult to create things with augmented reality, but now it is possible to create complex projects in less than 24 hours, Bys said.

David Molina, a computer engineering student at Concordia, participated in one of the workshops HackConcordia organized. It was hosted by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Concordia, a student branch of the electronics company, IEEE. The workshop focused on learning how to create an arduino, an open-source electronic platform that takes in information––such as a finger on a button or an online message––and uses that information to command actions like turn on a motor, a light, or publish a message. In simple terms, it is a very basic robot.

It was Molina’s first time at a HackConcordia event and, while he specializes in designing and building robots in his program, this was the first time he was able to program one.

“It might seem big, but you just have to start somewhere,” Molina said, explaining that anyone can learn how to hack, and the events that HackConcordia are a great way to dip your toes in. “You just have to start small and take baby steps, and then you’re off to building robots.”

Concordia’s Hackathon is on Jan. 25 and the results will be displayed in JMSB’s atrium on Jan. 26.


Photo by Cecilia Piga

Student Life

Four Montreal students take first place at HackHarvard

Four Montreal students take first place at HackHarvard

“HackHarvard was maybe my 10th hackathon,” said Nicolas MacBeth, a first-year software engineering student at Concordia. He and his friend Alex Shevchenko, also a first-year software engineering student, have decided to make a name for themselves and frequent as many hackathon competitions as they can. The pair have already participated in many hackathons over the last year, both together and separately. “I just went to one last weekend [called] BlocHacks, and I was a finalist at that,” said MacBeth.

Most notable of the pair’s achievements, along with their other teammates Jay Abi-Saad and Ajay Patal, two students from McGill, is their team’s first place ranking as ‘overall best’ in the HackHarvard Global 2018 competition on Oct. 19. According to MacBeth, while all hackathons are international competitions, “HackHarvard was probably the one that had the most people from different places than the United States.” The competition is sponsored by some of the largest transnational conglomerates in the tech industry. For example, Alibaba Cloud, a subsidiary of Alibaba Group, a multinational conglomerate specializing in e-commerce, retail, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology, as well as Zhejiang Lab, a Zhejiang provincial government sponsored institute whose research focuses on big data and cloud computing.

MacBeth said he and Shevchenko sifted through events on the ‘North American Hackathons’ section of the Major League Hacking (MLH) website, the official student hacking league that supports over 200 competitions around the world, according to their website. “We’ve gone to a couple hackathons, me and Alex together,” said MacBeth. “And we told ourselves ‘Why not? Let’s apply. [HackHarvard] is one of the biggest hackathons.’ […] So we applied for all the ones in the US. We both got into HackHarvard, and so we went.”

Essentially, MacBeth, Shevchenko, Abi-Saad, and Patal spent 36 hours conceptualizing, designing, and coding their program called sober.AI. The web application uses AI in tandem with visual data input to “increase accuracy and accessibility, and to reduce bias and cost of a normal field sobriety test,” according to the program’s description on Devpost. “I read a statistic somewhere that only a certain amount of police officers have been trained to be able to detect people [under the influence],” said MacBeth. “Drunk, they can test because they have [breathalyzers], but high, it’s kind of hard for people to test.”

MacBeth explained that the user-friendly web application could be helpful in a range of situations, from trying to convince an inebriated friend not to drive under the influence, to law enforcement officials conducting roadside testing in a way that reduces bias, to employees, who may have to prove sobriety for work, to do so non-invasively.

Sober.AI estimates the overall percentage of sobriety through a series of tests that are relayed via visual data—either a photo of an individual’s’ face or a video of the individual performing a task—that is inputted into two neural networks designed by the team of students.

“We wanted to recreate a field sobriety test in a way that would be as accurate as how police officers do it,” said MacBeth.

The first stage is an eye exam, where a picture of an individual is fed to the first neural network, which gives an estimation of sobriety based on the droopiness of the eye, any glassy haze, redness, and whether the pupils are dilated. The second stage is a dexterity test where individuals have to touch their finger to their nose, and the third is a balance test where people have to stand on one leg. “At the end, we compile the results and [sober.AI] gives a percentage of how inebriated we think the person is,” said MacBeth.

“Basically, what you want to do with AI is recreate how a human would think,” explained MacBeth. AI programs become increasingly more accurate and efficient as more referential data is inputted into the neural networks. “The hardest part was probably finding data,” explained MacBeth. “Because writing on the internet ‘pictures of people high’ or ‘red eyes’ and stuff like that is kind of a pain.” MacBeth said that he took to his social media pages to crowdsource photos of his friends and acquaintances who were high, which provided some more data. However, MacBeth said his team made a name for themselves at the hackathon when they started going from group to group, asking their competitors to stand on one leg, as if they were sober, then again after spinning around in a circle ten times. “That was how we made our data,” said MacBeth. “It was long and hard.”

Participating in such a prestigious competition and having sober.AI win ‘overall best’ left MacBeth and Shevchenko thirsty for more. “HackHarvard had a lot more weight to it. We were on the international level, and just having the chance of being accepted into HackHarvard within the six or seven hundred students in all of North America that were accepted, I felt like we actually needed to give it our all and try to win—to represent Concordia, to represent Montreal.”

MacBeth and Shevchenko have gone their separate ways in terms of competitions for the time being, however the pair’s collaborations are far from over. Both are planning to compete separately in ConUHacks IV at the end of January 2019, where MacBeth explained that they will team up with other software engineering students who have yet to compete in hackathons. “We’re gonna try to groom other people into becoming very good teammates,” said MacBeth.

The first-year software engineer concluded with some advice for fellow Concordia students. “For those in software engineering and even computer science: just go to hackathons,” advised MacBeth. “Even if you’re skilled, not skilled, want to learn, anything, you’re going to learn in those 24 hours, because you’re either gonna be with someone who knows, or you’re gonna learn on your own. Those are the skills you will use in the real world to bring any project to life.”

Feature photo courtesy of Nicolas Macbeth


HackConcordia to host its second Hackathon this weekend

ConUHacks II will bring more than 400 students together

Montreal’s prime major league hacking marathon, ConUHacks, is gearing up for its second edition of the 24-hour “hackathon” competition.

Organized by HackConcordia, a group of computer science and software engineering students, the event will bring together more than 400 students from across North America to show off their self-expression and creativity through technology. The hackathon will take place at the John Molson School of Business on Jan. 21, at 6 a.m. and will end Jan. 22, at 7 p.m.

The main goal of the hackathon is to create new web or mobile services over a limited time period – in this case, 24 hours. Hackathon projects, or ‘hacks’ can come in the form of websites, mobile applications and robots.

The free event welcomes students from all programs, whether they are new to the concept or not. The hackathon will be hosting tutorials and inviting mentors to help anyone having trouble with different softwares.

“You’re provided with mentors, various workshops, equipment and free food throughout the event,” said participant Aboud Dalab about the competition. “After the time-limit hits, individuals or teams present their projects.” The winners will be chosen by company mentors.

HackConcordia is one of the multiple hacking groups in North America and is part of the official student hackathon league, the Major League Hacking (MLH). MLH helps finance more than 200 weekend invention competitions, bringing more than 65,000 students together from around the world, according to their website.

This year’s ConUHacks will be open format, meaning students will be able to create their projects on web, mobile, desktop or hardware applications.

To give an idea of the scale of the event, last year Concordia received 1,252 applications, but only took 388 participants from 29 different universities. Most of the participants last year came from the U.S.

Some of the most used applications, such as Facebook Chat and the “like” button were first created at internal company hackathons. Another example of a notable hackathon development is GroupMe, a group messaging application that Skype bought for more than $50 million.

Hackathons are, in a sense, a career fair for students in computer science and software engineering programs according to participant Korhan Akçuran. He believes that, for many students, himself included, hackathons are a great opportunity to think about their future careers as programmers and to meet great contacts. Prizes are also given to winning projects. Last year’s prizes amounted to close to $26,000. HackConcordia will provide coffee and food, but suggests the hackers to bring a change of clothes and toiletries. Registration to participate is still open on ConUHacks’ website.

Meet some of Concordia’s participants!

Name: Korhan Akçura

Program: Second year in his masters of software engineering

“I decided to join this year’s ConUHacks II because I have a competitive personality and I like to solve challenges. I also believe that my creativity will be pushed to its limit with the limited time given. I am participating for self-improvement and to give the best of me to produce a successful software project in a short time. I participated at the Quebec Engineering Games and Quebec Engineering Competition while I was an undergraduate at Concordia. My mission is to apply my programming skills in a competitive environment, to produce an original project with my team. I will enjoy being in an environment with like-minded people where I can learn, share and develop my programming and technical skills. But most of all, I am participating for the fun and the satisfaction that will come after accomplishing the challenging task.”

Name: Aboud Dalab

Program: Second year in BA marketing

“I decided to join the hackathon to learn from all the mentors who will be present. I was introduced to the hackathon world because of my friends in the computer science program and then did my own research to find other hackathons near Montreal. When you’re hacking, you’re building, so we will see as a team what we will decide to create. Generally, hackathons are very messy due to the 24-hour time limit.  I doubt that we will follow a specific form of hacking due to time. Another great part of hackathons is that they are looking for people from all sorts of backgrounds, meaning not only programmers and software engineers. This prepares us for real life because to create a software project, you need all kinds of people from different fields.

Name: Daniel Privorotsky

Program: Second year in BA software engineering

“I decided to join the hackathon for a few different reasons. First off, the fun that comes from creating new things, challenging yourself and placing your knowledge to the test. Additionally, it is a great opportunity to meet people and expand your network. And, of course, it looks pretty good on your CV. My friends told me about the hackathon, which is why I joined. I have participated in one hackathon event before, but this year will be my first time at ConUHacks. I am excited to see the challenges that will be given to create the programs. Since there exist many different kinds of programming languages, interfaces, platforms and so on, having members who specialize in certain fields can be very helpful.”


Concordia hacks to success and beyond

Four-man team beats thousands, wins prize with Microsoft

Picture thousands of mostly undergraduate programmers and software engineers converging and taking over a building in Toronto. Some bring sleeping bags for quick naps; others consume vast amounts of stimulants to stay awake, for time is of the essence and in as little in 24 hours of coding they’ll have moved on.

This is a hackathon, and Concordia’s small group is moving up.

Sponsored by the University of Toronto, last weekend’s event saw 17 Concordia students participate, courtesy of student organization HacksConcordia.

Organizer Buruç Asrin and his three teammates—Mathieu St-Louis, Tyler Argo, and McGill student Brendan Gordon—beat out some 1,000 other contestants to win a prize with Microsoft. It was the second time they had done it with the same company in less than six months of attending hackathons.

Asrin says hackathons favour imagination and skill over practicality. Most projects live and die during during those long days, and participants use the time to work on their abilities and brainstorm rather than code fully fleshed-out creations.

“[In the time we have] it’s difficult to make a piece of software that will change the world,” he said.

Their entry in Toronto certainly won’t change the world, but it’s fun. Named after Scarlett Johansson’s A.I. character in the 2013 movie Her, their idea was to create a personable computer assistant similar to Apple’s Siri. Using natural language processing, Scarlett decodes what you’re saying and responds in kind. There are limits, of course; the software can’t cope with ambiguity or complexity, but it will hold up in a simple conversation, and can detect sentiments: tell Scarlett you’re feeling down, for example, and it (she) will play you a happy song to cheer you up.

Considering they only had 36 hours to come up with an idea (one is expected to arrive with empty hands and abide by the gentleman’s rule that frowns on entering with pre-designed code), it’s an impressive idea built upon pioneering work.

“All that natural language processing—which takes years and years to develop—was already done,” Asrin admitted.

Typically sponsorships pay for the transportation and lodging of hackathon contestants as well as the space rentals—and these sponsorships can be huge: Argo said the University of Pennsylvania’s hackathon, PennHacks, had a budget of $300,000. This time around, the Concordia group was reimbursed only $50 for finding their own way to the event. Nonetheless, the event still attracted talent from across the country.

A sense of camaraderie permeates the events. Asrin says it’s partly because everyone is happy to share, but also because they must: the dizzying pace of software development means you must cross lines and seek help. Even rivals like Apple and Microsoft routinely do it.

“Software moves so quickly, we need to understand it. Regardless if we’re competitors, we’re in the same boat,” said Asrin. Argo estimated he reads between 20-30 articles a day to keep up to date.

The increasing importance of hackathons has swelled attendance numbers and consequently raised the bar. The landscape is more competitive and serious, virtual career fairs carefully scouted for talent by top software companies watching in the background. This means that even as they become bigger, some are becoming more closed to the amateur talent that created them.

U.S. hackathons hosted by Ivy League schools now require lengthy application processes asking for credentials and project histories, cutting all but the most accomplished—or the most willing to devote their time to the life. The elitism does not sit well with Asrin and his teammates, even as they understand the progression.

“It’s harder to get in PennHacks than to get into the university,” said Argo. “Hackathons should really be open to everybody. It shouldn’t necessarily need to have experience to attend a hackathon. It should be a learning experience.”

Asrin agreed: “That’s why they were created in the first place: for you to learn something. We were lucky. We were at the beginning of this, so we caught the wave. If I was entering software engineering this year, it would have been difficult for me to enter into a hackathon.”

Hackathons have also taught them a thing or two about confidence in their ability.  As Asrin says: “When we went to the Yale hackathon, I came to the realization that it’s an Ivy League school, it’s a top school, but on paper these guys are in real life no better than us. We buy the same textbooks off Amazon, the programming concept we’re taught here is the same. The only difference between him and me is he pays ten times more in tuition that I do. That’s one realization: you’re good enough.”

HackConcordia aims to make everybody feel the same way.

“We’re kind of creating momentum, showing everybody we can compete.”

To that end, they encourage non-programmers to come by and even try it for themselves.

“It’s very easy to feel overwhelmed or feel subpar when you look at all the things there are to learn in software engineering. In reality all you have to do is read a few tutorials and do it,” said Argo.

To learn more about HackConcordia, go to

To test Scarlett (requires a working microphone and Chrome browser) go to

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