South Florida techies compete for $100K in Battle Hack

ndahlberg@MiamiHerald.comAugust 26, 2013 

MIAMI -- Ever notice how there's never a convenient ATM when you really need to withdraw $50?

What if neighborhood merchants could perform the service for just $1 -- giving consumers more choices for safe withdrawals while sending the small businesses a revenue cut and potential customers through their doors?

A team of developers won this weekend's hackathon with an app that does just that.

More than 125 South Florida developers, some toting sleeping bags, packed the co-working center LAB Miami in Wynwood on Saturday and Sunday for PayPal's Battle Hack, where teams were given 24 hours to create an app that solves a social problem in the community. The winning team, YellowPepper, will compete in Silicon Valley against nine other teams from around the world, including Berlin, Tel Aviv, London and Moscow. The goal: Find the world's best developers. The global prize for one winning team: $100,000.

"The winning app makes it easy for consumers to find places to withdraw small amounts of cash at a low cost, using businesses in their own neighborhood, using a PayPal technology that is very secure," said Alexander Sjögren, who developed the app with Jose Pimienta and Osniel Gonzalez. Sjögren is with the Miami company YellowPepper, which offers mobile banking and payment solutions in Latin America. Pimienta and Gonzalez co-founded a startup called Vinylfy.

"We see as a trend the cardless society, and this builds toward the idea that you don't have to be bound by your card or your wallet. At the same time, this technology can help the community … empowering small businesses. The app uses amazing technology, and it focuses on a real problem in your city," said Jonathan LeBlanc, PayPal head of "developer evangelism" for North America and one of the judges.

Twenty-five teams competed, and others came up with solutions for making it easier to give to the homeless, help crowd-fund pet shelters, ease access to libraries, bring garage sales into the digital age and promote nonprofit projects. A crowd favorite -- and second-place winner -- was Redeemr, an app allowing you to call out someone for a wrong and ask them through social media to redeem themselves by donating to charity.

Some developers formed teams before the hackathon, and others came looking for partners. "Being a developer truly is a social sport," LeBlanc said.

To combat "hacker's block," there were game tables, a nap room with air mattresses and loungers, and a steady flow of free meals and snacks catered by local restaurants and food trucks. Those coding through the night were provided with chair massages. Indeed, developers joked this was the "business class" of hackathons.

Although at times Battle Hack took on a party spirit, make no mistake, developers were serious about winning. Even a brief power outage in the morning failed to dampen the spirit (most continued to hack through their phones). No wait at the women's room -- this crowd was 95 percent men.

Members of PayPal's developer team and other sponsoring companies were on hand to help the teams throughout the hackathon, and they also gave each bleary-eyed team a rehearsal on their presentation and offered feedback. For PayPal, these hackathons are an opportunity to spend quality time with top developers from around the world, find out their experiences developing with PayPal's programming interface (all contestants were required to use it in their apps) and take feedback back to the company.

"It's a 24-hour opportunity to see some amazing innovation," said LeBlanc, who lived in South Florida five years ago and will be returning to the area later this year. Of the burgeoning startup scene, he said: "I've been noticing amazing growth. Miami is at the cusp."

In the past year, hackathons have become common on tech-event calendars. For this one, groups such as LAB Miami, a shared workspace and education center for techies and other creatives, the Technology Foundation of the Americas, Refresh Miami and other tech meetup groups, and all of South Florida's universities worked to encourage the best developers from campuses, corporations and co-working spaces across the tri-county area to compete.

Ernie Hsiung, one of the judges, reminded Battle Hack participants that the hack doesn't have to stop here -- particularly if it solves an acute community problem. "Come to Code For Miami, a civic-hacking group that gets together Monday nights at the LAB … and continue to build your app for the social good," he said.

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