This weekend I was lucky enough to be part of The HackTrain.
HackTrain is the first ever train hackathon in Europe targeted to #HackTheRails! An unforgettable experience where 40 of the best developers from all around Europe will revolutionize the world! Jump on board the HackTrain for a once in a lifetime journey, travel to the top tech spaces in the UK, hang out with the market makers in the Startup ecosystem, and create startups that will revolutionize the world!
The journey started out in London where National Rail Enquires, The Association of Train Operating Companies, East Midlands Trains and Virgin Trains East Coast all gave talks about their technology stacks, public APIs they had made available and challenges with technology they were trying to overcome. The sponsors for the event, including financial computing company Bloomberg also spoke about their APIs and what they do.
The first train we got took us from London St. Pancras to Sheffield via the Midland Mainline. During this time we had icebreaker sessions to get to know our fellow hackers, including having to come up with a pitch for a company whose name was an amalgamation of two random words. My team got Snickers Jacuzzi, so we pitched an idea for advertising jacuzzis on the inside of Snickers wrappers. Mad, I know.
Once we arrived in Sheffield we went to Electric Works — an office full of tech startups and home to Europe’s largest indoor slide — this was where each of the 40 participants who wanted to could pitch an idea. I decided to pitch the idea of an application which could dynamically work out any delays happening in real-time to your train (or any subsequent trains in your journey) and alert anyone who might be affected by this, for example a parent picking you up from the train station or anyone subscribed to attend an event on your Google Calendar. In this example it could also inform said parent what time they would have to leave their current location to pick up their child on time. Once everyone had pitched their ideas each of the participants voted for which projects they felt should be worked on. 11 out of 40 people voted for my idea, and so I was able to attempt to form a team to develop it.
However, due to weird team sizes my team had to merge with another team. This was a blessing in disguise as they were nice people to work with, however it meant that only one of our projects could be worked on. I suggested we worked democratically and put it to a vote of the 5 members of the new team and it was decided that we would work on the other idea.
The idea the team I was in developed over the course of the following 48 hours was called Icebreaker. Icebreaker aimed to solve the problem of boredom on long train journeys by matching you up with people on the train who were interested in talking and making friends. People would be allocated travel partners based on their interests and likes on Facebook. You can watch a truly horrifying video of an advert we produced showing how the system works below:
The workflow can be explained as follows:
- Buy a ticket from TheTrainLine.com or similar
- They redirect you to Icebreaker
- If you want to talk, enter your mobile phone number and log in with Facebook. If not, close the tab.
- Do nothing more, we handle all the hard work!
- 10 minutes before you get on your train we’ll tell you who you’re matched with. If you still want to meet someone reply ‘yes’. If you’re not in a good mood that day or otherwise don’t want to meet reply ‘no’ or don’t reply!
- If both people reply with ‘yes’ within 10 minutes, a location is selected for them to meet on board, and some unreserved seats where they could possibly sit together are suggested.
Whilst we were developing the system we were lucky enough to visit the National Railway Museum in York and Tech Cube in Edinburgh. A highlight of the journey for me was going over the Royal Border Bridge (aka the Berwick-upon-Tweed Viaduct).
The Final Judging of the competition happened in the National Railway Museum at York (nice and close to home ;)). Unfortunately our team wasn’t to win anything this time, however I can say I learnt a lot from the experience and made some wonderful connections with people in my industry and that of the train industry. I particularly learnt quite a lot about the Facebook and Twilio API’s, how to develop a business plan in a short period of time, how not to act on video and how important consumer validation is to an idea.
I’d like to take this time to thank the organisers, sponsors and judges of the HackTrain as well as my fellow participants who made it a weekend to remember.