Global Observer

In Berlin, hack-a-thons light the way

In Berlin, hack-a-thons light the way

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BERLIN -- As hack-a-thons spread to major cities around the world, this metropole sees it begin to emerge as a way of life, as well as a way of business.

BERLIN -- For Tank Thunderbird, uncertainty is generally less of a threat, and more of an opportunity.

The amateur coder could be found standing before a crowd in an empty indoor swimming pool, microphone in hand, presenting her team's newly-completed mobile application at EyeEm's Photo Hack Day in Berlin.

The team calls the app Phudge, and it applies old-school, analogue photo-phenonmena such as double-exposures and discoloration to pictures. It's one of nine functional projects to emerge from the 48-hour hack-a-thon, whose registration was open to the public.

Once all teams have presented, the jury - made up of representatives from AKQA, Tumblr and SoundCloud among others - begin to deliberate. The pool empties, and an echoey, anticipatory murmur fills the swimming hall. Despite the excitement surrounding the results, Tank maintains she is here for the experience rather than the chance at a prize.

"It's about getting to participate in a situation that wouldn't have come about otherwise," she says. "You meet new people, gain new skills and get inspired by each other. So it's a community thing, as well."

Born in South America, raised in Texas, and having spent the last six years in Berlin, Tank has dedicated much of her adult life adapting to new environments, particularly fine arts, music, LGBTQ and technology communities. Though her own programming skills are limited, she says the team dynamic presents a whole new set of opportunities.

"I love it because I feel my ideas move with the coders," she says. "Whereas something may have seemed impossible when I tried to implement it myself, I suddenly see here that it is possible."

Tank isn't the only one excited about the weekend's creative storm. Mike Betts, jury member and Product Strategy Director at creative agency AKQA says finished projects like these are born of a unique kind of passion.

"I think it's always really interesting to see what comes out of an accelerated process," Betts says. "You get interesting break-throughs... traction comes very, very quickly because everyone is here for the experience, for the love of doing it, so that affects the outcome."

"Berlin also has a very DIY culture, and that gives you some really amazing stuff."

But what does it mean for established businesses when amateurs and free agents begin taking innovative matters into their own hands? Betts says the hack-a-thon format is relevant to anyone serious about ground-breaking creation.

"These things are completely replicable in a business situation," says Betts. "I think startups can come out of events like this, but this passion, focus, energy and intensity can be integrated into any creative process."

On the same subject, Tank says she sees proverbial "industry dinosaurs" as the biggest losers amidst the trend.

"As time goes by, I feel they have more to fear," she says. "More and more people are unemployed and figuring out during that time what they really want to do."

"You have to create your own world in whatever way you can. Sometimes life can be really hard, but you have to fight your own battles, and you'll find associates along the way."

Meanwhile, the jury has reached a decision: Phudge will take home First Prize, "a weekend trip to London for the whole team including an exclusive appointment at the AKQA headquarters to showcase their hack," sponsored by the creative agency itself.

"I think [the prize] is a tribute to serendipity," Tank comments, as she and her team accept the award.

"It's what happens when you open up and are free to follow whatever moves you at that moment," she adds later.

"I think it's a symbol of the times: open up and things come your way. Listen to yourself."

PHOTO: Alexander Köpke

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Shannon Smith

Correspondent (Berlin)

Shannon N. Smith has written for WNYC's The Takeaway and TheLocal.de. She holds a degree from the University of Texas at Austin. She is based in Berlin, Germany. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure