Last September I participated with two friends (Jesse and Bernd) in a very awesome hackaton in Canada: Hack The North 2016. It was a great experience being both my first hackaton and the first time I’ve been to Canada (and the USA)!
This post will be a bit longer as usual as I will be talking about the hackaton and our visit of Canada.
The hackaton took place at the University of Waterloo from September 16 to 18. There was a large interest for this hackaton from people all over the world from 23 different countries and 175 schools. As only 1000 participants were allowed, every team had to write a short motivation about why they wanted to participate and what they were planning to create. We were super excited when a few weeks later we received a positive mail stating we were accepted from the 6000 other people who applied!
We planned to go there from Tuesday 14th until arriving back at Belgium on Friday 24th. This would give us some extra time to visit and explore Toronto and Canada.
We boarded the plane at Brussels Airport at 13:30 and arrived at Toronto Airport 11 hours later. It took two flights, first from Brussels to Montreal and then from Montreal to Toronto. It was a long day since the time in Brussels is six hours ahead of Toronto/Montreal. We left in Brussels at 13:30 and arrived in Montreal at 15:00, but the flight took 7 hours and 30 minutes. A little later we would board our second flight at 17:20 from Montreal to Toronto. It was a short flight and we arrived at 18:40.
From Toronto Airport we took a taxi to our Airbnb host. We hired a cosy place west of Toronto city and not very far from the airport. It was a small place, but it had everything we needed. It was not far from the metro and there was a bus station nearby. We could buy food at the mall which was at walking distance. The house itself was located at a pretty quiet place with not a lot of traffic. Also, we couldn’t be safer as the owner was a police officer. He was a very friendly and helpful guy! All in all, we were very satisfied with this place.
The hackaton took place at the University of Waterloo. We used one of the buses between Toronto Airport and the University, reserved by the hackaton organization. It was one of those typical yellow american school busses. We arrived at the hackaton in the early evening. We got a goodie bag and some food for dinner.
At 9 PM we were expected at the opening ceremony at the Hagey Hall auditorium. After some introductions, we got a very inspiring talk with Vinod Khosla, the founder of Sun Microsystems and Khosla Ventures. He talked about the importance of artificial intelligence and 3D printing on the future as well as why having an opinionated view of the future is important for innovation. It was very interesting and inspiring. The whole talk can be viewed here.
The hackaton started at midnight and would end 36 hours later. It was a very intense, but exciting and fun 36 hours. We worked non-stop, only interrupted by an occasional workshop and some minimal amount of sleep. At the end I personally had the feeling that I maybe missed a bit too much of the side activities. But we needed all the time we had to finish a working product.
We created a location based social media platform, called Picaloc. The project can be viewed at Devpost, where we had to submit our project for the hackaton. You can view the webapp here (go to Waterloo University on the map to see some pictures in the app).
When the hackaton ended 36 hours later, we had to pitch our product before a jury consisting of CEO’s from start-ups and some people from major tech companies such as Google and Microsoft. We had two minutes to present our product in the best possible way. I think we did pretty well, we prepared our pitch and we all knew what we were going to say in the little time given to us.
At 2 PM the final showcase and the closing ceremonies took place at Hagey Hall. Unfortunately we did not make the finals, but we had a great experience and I personally learned a lot! After the closing ceremonies we took the bus back to Toronto Airport and from there the bus to our Airbnb house.
We went to bed early, since we were all pretty tired and we had to get up early the next morning to go to the Google PWA Roadshow in Toronto.
Google was organizing the Progressive Web App Roadshow in multiple cities in North America. We were extremely lucky that Monday, the day after the hackaton ended, Google happened to organize such a PWA Roadshow event in Toronto! A couple of weeks before we went to Canada I was looking up some info about PWA’s and I saw a notification on one of the PWA pages from Google about the North America PWA Roadshow. When I looked where and when those events took place, I was surprised that we could actually attend the one in Toronto because the date and place were perfect for us to combine with our stay in Canada. We quickly applied for the event and soon after our application we got a confirmation mail we got a reservation for the event.
The event took place at the MaRS Discovery District and would start in the morning at 9:00 with a breakfast and end in the afternoon at 4:30. When we arrived at the event, we got a name card and a fancy Google notebook. The breakfast was delicious with a lot of variety. At 9:30 the event started with Pete LePage and Paul Bakaus talking about PWA’s in depth. At midday we had a very tasty lunch. In the afternoon there was a workshop planned and we got our hands dirty. We got to build our own PWA, learned to work with Service Workers and the Lighthouse tool and how to implement Push Notifications. We stayed until the end and we were one of last people there. At the end we had a nice, quick chat with Pete LePage. Then we packed our stuff and took the metro home.
The event was very interesting and I learned a lot of new stuff. Not everything was new however, but it was interesting to have some Google engineers explain everything about PWA’s. It was definitely worth our time!
There are lots of interesting places to visit in Toronto. We decided to buy a City Pass, which contains entrance tickets for the most popular places including the CN Tower, Casa Loma, Royal Ontario Museum, Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada and either the Toronto Zoo or the Ontario Science Centre. That was already a narrow selection but even then we were only able to visit the first four places.
Casa Loma was the most interesting and the CN Tower was the most spectacular. Casa Loma had a very interesting history in which the protagonist Sir Henry Pellat was an exceptional man that personally inspired me (the man worth looking up)! The CN Tower is a 553 m high tower that offered a spectacular view over Toronto and its surroundings, including the seemingly endless Lake Ontario. At the top of the CN Tower there was a section where the floor was made out of thick glass which effectively gave you the feeling you were floating at an altitude of around 500m! Pretty impressive and definitely worth the visit.
In addition we also visited the St. Lawrence Market, advertised as “one of the world’s great markets”. It was huge with a lot of merchants offering a great variety of products.
Niagara Falls is famous around the world and for good reasons. It was a spectacular view, both from above and from below. We took a boat that would navigate to the falls. The boat got very close and it was as if we were in the middle of a storm! There was a lot of wind and the air was filled with the roaring sound of the falls and a mix of what seemed like rain and fog. We were all given a pink plastic poncho to keep us dry, but I refused to put on the silly thing which of course led to me being completely soaked. But it was fun and the weather was good so I didn’t mind.
Niagara Falls lies at the border with the USA, near the state of New York. You could pass the border, but because both Jesse and I didn’t had a visa for the USA, we first had to pass border control. Some officers gave us papers to fill in and asked us a couple of questions before they gave us a visa for 30 days. We had our lunch in the USA, walked a bit and visited a gift shop. Then we went back to the Canadian side.
When we were in Canada, the World Cup of Hockey (Ice Hockey) 2016 was organized in Toronto. This was a great opportunity to watch an exciting hockey match at the highest level. The most popular matches were either sold out or pretty expensive. But we were lucky that for some games there were still a lot of tickets left which dropped the price significantly (even for better seats). We bought tickets for the game of Finland VS Sweden in Group B in the group stage.
Ice Hockey is a very popular sport in North America, particularly in Canada where it is the official national winter sport. You could notice that as everything was big and pretty impressive and there was a lot of marketing on the streets for the World Cup.
It was my first time seeing an ice hockey game live and it was a very spectacular one! Both teams were very good in my opinion. I supported Sweden and they actually won the game with 0 - 2. The game consisted of three periods of twenty minutes. Between two periods I went to the merchandising shop and bought a shirt for Sweden. When the game ended the Swedish supporters were ecstatic and were singing and shouting when leaving the stadium. Because I wore the Swedish Team T-Shirt they dragged me with them to join the party. I do know some words of Swedish, but most of the things they were saying to me I couldn’t understand. So I just nodded, smiled and high fived them back. It was a lot of fun.
At the end of the second week, we prepared to leave Canada. We said goodbye to our Airbnb host and took off. We had our flight at 7:15 PM and we arrived at 11:13 AM in Brussels. This time we had a very short night as we flew “towards the morning”.
It was a fantastic experience and I think I will never forget it. I had a great time with Jesse and Bernd and I would recommend everyone who is into coding or building cool stuff to try doing a hackaton abroad (especially Hack The North)!