DevXS Student Developer Marathon

Nov 21, 2011 by

DevCSI recently collaborated with the University of Lincoln’s Student as Producer project to host the extremely successful DevXS student hackathon, which took place from Friday 11th – Sunday 13th November at the aptly named Engine Shed at the University of Lincoln.

The event was designed to build on the success of our annual Dev8D conference by bringing together student web developers, computer science geeks and journalism/media students for a two-day developer marathon. The students were encouraged to team up and build cool things that contribute to university life, and were rewarded with prizes sponsored by the Guardian, DevCSI, Cottage Labs, the University of Lincoln and the University of Southampton.

See this DevXS promotional video on Vimeo.

Over 170 students from across the UK joined us, many of whom worked right through Saturday night to create some outstanding and innovative projects. In this report we get a snapshot of the event and hear from some of the students involved…


Over the course of the event the students heard a series of short inspirational keynote presentations from a range of experts:

Michael Brunton-Spall
The Guardian

Brunton-Spall gave the students an overview of the data available from the Guardian, including World Government Data and the Guardian’s Open Platform. He also gave a whirlwind tour of some of the results of previous hack days to help provide some inspiration for the students as they got underway with their own projects.

“Hack days are not about taking on a massive project, but throwing something interesting together to show what can be done”

The Guardian offered a challenge at DevXS which focussed on helping to reduce the social inequality for students by rewarding the best hack produced at the event to help people from poorer backgrounds to access higher education. Brunton-Spall introduced this challenge and pointed the students towards some of the potential data sources they might want to investigate when approaching this challenge.

Phil Sturgeon
Happy Ninjas

Sturgeon gave a glimpse into his experiences as a nomadic developer travelling the US after becoming dissatisfied both with corporate life and with working by himself in the UK.

He created a tool to plan where he wanted to travel, offered his training and development services via Twitter and plotted a route between jobs. This strategy enabled him to meet with lots of Twitter contacts, attend conferences in the US and work in some random places. He took the students through the sums to show that it was actually profitable to travel and stay in hostels, compared to renting a flat and working from home. One day of work could fund three days of his trip, with a strategy typically based on a three day cycle:

  • Day one: take laptop somewhere fun and work
  • Day two: do something interesting, have fun
  • Day three: go somewhere else

“I occasionally get chased by bears!”

To find out more, read Phil’s blog post about his presentation at DevXS.

Professor Peter McOwan
Queen Mary College, London

The students were treated to a computer magic show by Professor Peter McOwan, where he broke the magician’s code to explain how an understanding of mathematics and concepts used in computer science can account for some magical card tricks…

YouTube Preview Image
See this video on YouTube.

Tony Hirst
The Open University

In his evening keynote, Hirst discussed his attitude to playing with data and the web, which is largely about building quick and simple demonstrations that encapsulate one or two ideas which then serve as memory aids for himself and teaching tools for others. This is driven by his sense of responsibility that as “computer people” we should help others use technology more easily.

“80-90% of people out there don’t know about CTRL F. Sharing these tricks will help people hate technologies less.”

He described how you can work magic very quickly and with very little effort by using combinations of freely available tools, libraries, applications and tricks. He provided examples including a mashup he created which took tabular data from Wikipedia and showed it on a map. He used this example to explain how Google Spreadsheets and Yahoo Pipes can be used to create such mashups without any code at all.

He advocated making use of Stack Overflow both by using the answers and contributing if you know an answer to share the knowledge that you’ve got. He also introduced Get the Data and The Data Hub, where you can find openly licensed data.

“Use appropriate tools and appropriate technologies: just because an application or a tool was built for one thing does not mean that’s the only way it can be used.”

Hirst concluded by giving a practical overview of a range of useful tools, including Gephi to create visualisations, ScraperWiki to scrape and process websites, Google Fusion Tables, which he described as a spreadsheet on steroids, Google Refine for cleaning up data, and his Guardian Datastore Explorer.

“You already do ‘just do it’ so now just share it!”

Richard Jones and Mark MacGillivray
Cottage Labs

Jones and MacGillivray described the concept behind an alternative way of working as a developer with the HE sector. Their partnership, Cottage Labs, is a collaboration of freelance HE developers who aim to have an impact on the world whilst doing what they love. They are all passionate about open source software, but observed that larger organisations struggle to be flexible enough to take full advantage of open source solutions, which means they can be five-six years behind the times. Cottage Labs works with organisations in HE to overcome this.

In describing their careers and their experiences since forming Cottage Labs, they distilled what they had learnt about making yourself more employable as a developer:

  • People need useful things: make them and they will pay you
  • Publish your code: your creative art is your CV
  • Don’t stand still: if you stand still you will end up going backwards. Make sure your employer gives you time to learn new skills
  • Go to events, be seen and give talks: this will help people get interested in what you’re doing and be interested in the community
  • Do what you like: you must like what you’re doing, otherwise you’re going to write boring software and you won’t explore the boundaries of the problem

“By coming to DevXS you have already taken the first step in making yourself more employable.”

Lightning Talks

A core part of the philosophy behind DevXS was to encourage peer-to-peer learning and skill sharing between students. Throughout the weekend participants volunteered to give a five-minute lightning talk on a subject of their choice, which resulted in a diverse range of talks. Here is a selection of the topics covered:

Colin Dawson from Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen discussed WITSML: a standard for communicating data from sensors within deep sea wells. The data from these sensors is converted into WITSML, which can then be used to dynamically generate drilling reporting charts and inform other systems. Students at Robert Gordon University have the opportunity to do placement with oil companies working in the North Sea – an experience which exposed Dawson to the WITSML standard. He emphasised that it is the general standard used by the whole oil and gas industry for data analysis, making it worthy of investigation by more students.

Jack Franklin from the University of Bath gave a brief introduction to CoffeeScript, which he described as “like JavaScript, but better.” CoffeeScript is quicker and and easier to write than JavaScript, and gets compiled into Javascript for use. Franklin explained how to use CoffeeScript, how it is compiled, and introduced some of the tools available. He also provided an overview of the basic function syntax and examples of some of CoffeeScript’s key features.

Mithila Wanasinghe from Keele University described his experience of mock interviews with employers in the IT industry. Part of his degree course includes a contribution from commercial IT companies, part of which involves taking students through their own interview processes to help them gain experience. Wanasinghe described the types of assessment he encountered in this process, including making a presentation, group work, the interview, and reviewing your CV. He also shared some of the tips he has learnt about how to succeed in these assessments.

Zeeshan Ahmed from Sheffield Hallam University tackled the subject of design and the value of design to the IT industry in his lightning talk. He provided some quick tips that don’t take long, but improve the overall design of the website, included colour, contrast, navigation, typography, use of space. He argued for simplicity and consistency, and emphasised the need for testing.

Zeeshan spoke to us about his experiences of DevXS and explained why he found the event so useful as an introduction to programming…

View this video on Vimeo.

Chris Atkin-Granville from Keele University gave a demonstration of his web application: Tundra, which he described as an open source alternative to iGoogle. Tundra features a range of different widget types, each of which can auto-refresh independently of the others; allows you to add your own choice of search engine; and allows you to customise the site by applying your own CSS. He gave an overview of how it works and asked for assistance from the other developers at the event to help examine the application for security issues.

Malte Ressin from the University of West London discussed software localisation and internationalisation, emphasising the difference between making software work in a local context, perhaps within a different language or culture, by the use of translation and the process of internationalising the software so that it can be localised. He gave examples of some of the difficulties that can arise which require more than just textual translation, including the different cultural meanings of colours and the different formatting conventions for tables. He identified the mismatch between development methods like Agile and localisation requirements and stressed the importance of thinking about localisation during development, rather than assuming it will be a simple case of translation.


Throughout the event students were encourage to work in teams to compete for one of the wide range of challenges offered by the event sponsors. There were 26 entries in total, with each team given just one minute to pitch their solution to the judges.

All of the judges were impressed by the high standard of all of the entries, many of which had been created during all-night coding sessions. Here is a summary of the prizes on offer and the projects which impressed the judges…

The Scholarly Publishing Challenge, set by Public Platforms, offered a £100 prize for innovative work relating to scholarly publishing. This was won by the Tasks for Chrome project, which is a Google Chrome extension which allows you to create “to do” lists, including reading lists which are generated by the application once the user has requested the reading material from a certain course. This was developed by Andrew Fairbarin, Jonathan Frost and Andrei Simionescu from the University of York, and Craig Roberts from Aberystwyth University.

The Most Sustainable Web Application Challenge, set by the DevXS team, offered $200 of AWS Credit for the team which built the most sustainable and useful web application. This was won by the Unofficial University Guide project, created by Sam Elliott and Elliot Davies from the University of St Andrews, and Andrei Mustata from the University of Glasgow. The project combines a variety of data to provide an alternative university league table, which draws upon career prospects, teaching scores, student:staff ratios, local benefit sanctions data, life expectancy and social deprivation data to help provide a more complete picture of the university and surrounding area.

The Challenging Gender Stereotypes Challenge, set by the University of Lincoln School of Computing, offered £200 of vouchers for work which challenges gender stereotypes in computing or gaming. This was won by Julie Allinson from the University of York, who carried out a data project to investigate gender distribution in computer science across GCSE, A Level and Higher Education. Her work can be found on Google Docs.

Julie Allinson gave us her insights into the event as both a student and someone with a background working in HE in this short video interview…

View this video on Vimeo.

The DevCSI Competition offered an overall prize to the best ideas that make a difference to University life for students and/or staff. There was a first prize of £250 of Amazon vouchers on offer, with a second prize of £150 of vouchers and a third prize of £100 of vouchers. The winning team was Unofficial University Guide, with Tasks for Chrome coming in second place. The third place prize went to the Roominate project, which is a Twitter-based service that helps gets people to the rooms they need to find on Lincoln campus developed by Team Awesome, consisting of Sam Jordan and Jon Begin from the University of Hull, Craig Sansam from the Open University and Andy Garbett from the University of Lincoln.

There were also honourable mentions: for the Price Splitter, Intr, and Find It projects.

The Challenge, set by LNCD at the University of Lincoln, offered over £250 in vouchers for the best use of First place was awarded to the Roominator project, with a £50 second prize going to the MUCAS project, which provides an Android app for searching UCAS course information for the University of Lincoln, developed by Adam Hay and Justin Leung from Anglia Ruskin University, 
Joshua Moon from the University of Hull, 
Richard Hall from the University of East Anglia and Nick Simm from the University of Leeds.

The Inclusion and Accessibility Challenge, also set by LNCD at the University of Lincoln, offered a £100 ‘bonus’ voucher for the work that best demonstrates attention to accessibility and inclusivity. This was won by the Cyber People team for their MindBodySoul Robot, which combines a roomba vacuum robot with a Microsoft Kinect so it can be controlled with hand gestures, android and/or mind control. The team consisted of John Dyer, Samuel Clements, Thomas Lowe, Helen Harman, Bill Richardson, Claire Sauze, Colin Sauze, and Tarirai Mangwiro from Aberystwyth University, Babalola Adesanya-Shine from the University of Oxford, John C. Murray from the University of Lincoln and James Lendrem from the University of Newcastle.

The Social Apps and APIs Challenge, set by the Lincoln Social Computing Research Centre (LiSC), awarded a prize of £200 worth of vouchers to the best project addressing any of the following four themes:

  • Applications that annotate the physical world, digitally, in ways that expand our encounters with the world (i.e., serendipity), rather than limiting them
  • Apps that support social interaction at hack weekends
  • Apps that use university data in subversive or cheeky ways
  • Mashing open government data sets ( with university data

The winner was the Social Library App, which allows students to recommend and rate books that are relevant to their degree course. A live demo is available here. The project was devised by Jenny Wong and Andrew Slack from the University of Salford, Jimmy Thompson and Alan Farquharson, Tom Fallon and Asad Haider from Manchester Metropolitan University, and Alexandru Grigoroi from the University of Manchester.

The Smart Research Frameworks Challenge, set by the University of Southampton, offered £300 worth of vouchers for the team which designed and built an application that used the University of Southampton’s “health and safety dataset” to provide a service to university students and/or staff.

First place went to the COSHH Assessment Form Generator, which enables the user to generate a COSHH assessment form using a web application which relies on an RDF dataset. This was created by Kristopher Early and Enrico Teterra from the University of Stirling.

Second place went to the Globally Harmonised System project, which provides information about chemical properties and hazards. The team consisted of Johnathan Dingley, Kevin Hargan and Perry Johnson from the University of Ulster Coleraine, Kim Ward from Sheffield Hallam University and James Price.

The Library Activity Challenge, set by the University of Lincoln Library, offered £250 of Amazon vouchers to the team making the best use of library activity data as part of the application they developed over the weekend. This was won by the OokNog project, which provides an interface for searching for articles and discovering related papers. A live demo is available here. The OokNog team consisted of Andrew Collins, Thomas Gorry, Jude-Thaddeus Ojiaku and Arnoud Pastink from the University of Liverpool.

Andrew and Arnoud from the OokNog project spoke to us about their experience at DevXS and described some of the technologies used within their project…

View this interview on Vimeo.

The Guardian Challenge offered £100 in amazon vouchers for best hack around “Social Inclusion in FE or HE”. This was also won by the Unofficial University Guide project.

The Cottage Labs Challenge offered a job interview for the developer who could develop solutions to any of the existing issues affecting their open source projects. This was won by Emanuil Tolev from Aberystwyth University, who successfully resolved a bug on their Bibserver project.

Emanuil spoke to us about how valuable he had found the event, and gave his perspective as a student working within HE whilst studying…

View this interview on Vimeo.

A complete list of all the teams that took part, together with details of their projects, can be found at the DevXS wiki.


DevXS clearly demonstrated that students can be an extremely valuable resource for universities looking to innovate and make use of new skills and technologies, whilst giving their students the opportunity to gain practical experience in the work place. We were thrilled to see so many useful projects created in such a short space of time during the event and we look forward to seeing how these develop in the coming weeks and months.

We hope to see some of these students again at Dev8D in February, where they will have another opportunity to share, inspire and be inspired by other developers working in HE.

1 Comment

  1. That spectrum video is beyond fantastic. It is pure genius. We love it, love it love it here at the office.

    Hats off to you guys!!!



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