Hackeroo: the music fest hackathon experiment

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on July 5, 2013

From The News Desk

Twenty-two-year-old Tennessee State senior Andre Woodley had never been to a music festival before he won a coding competition and got invited to hack inside Bonnaroo, a four-day, camping festival extravaganza held on a 700-acre farm in Manchester, Tennessee. In fact, he didn’t hear about the festival's hacking competition until two days before, and applied at the last minute. “It was 3 am in the morning and I wasn’t going to go because I only had 12 hours to hack,” Woodley says. “But then, I had the perfect idea.”

Hackeroo – the first ever hackathon inside the Bonnaroo music festival – gave two winning teams the chance to develop websites to benefit attendees in June 2013, and test the beta projects from within the festival grounds. While the festival and hackathon happened three weeks ago it offers an intriguing template for other quirky music and tech gatherings, offering throngs of festival goers as beta testers for hacked projects.

The idea was the brain child of Travis Laurendine, organizer of the New Orleans group CODEMKRS, self-described as “fixing problems using technology teams.” Previously, CODEMKRS snagged the attention of local media and city government for holding hackathons to create apps for tourists at the Superbowl XLVII, the Jazz and Heritage Festival, and the National Civic Day of Hacking.

The week before Bonnaroo, a handful of teams turned out for a 28-hour hackathon, a try out, if you will. The winners would get free festival tickets (and hacking fest privileges), courtesy of Bonnaroo. Execs from Aloompa (official Bonnaroo app maker), Superfly (Bonnaroo production company), and local startup LeanKit judged the contest.

Tennessee State senior Andre Woodley’s concept – RooRunner – was a TaskRabbit for festivals, where people could request someone to run errands for money, like delivering water or saving a spot at a stage. Hackeroo creator Travis Laurendine said Woodley’s original product wasn’t a scalable, mobile friendly demo, but the judges loved the idea of it because, “Wouldn’t you want someone to go get a beer for you at a festival?”

Free festival hacking passes went to two winners: Woodley, working on RooRunner on his own, and a 2-person group behind RooWall, a site that aggregated all the social media pcitures and posts occurring around Bonnaroo so people could follow along in real time. RooWall looked like a prettier, more visual TweetDeck for festival goers.

"The whole point of going into Bonnaroo is to test how the app works in the real world,"  Hackeroo organizer Laurendine says. He nailed down a sponsor for a recreational vehicle and recruited a friend of his named Hart - incidentally the star of the SyFy TV show Deep South Paranormal - to drive ("an old, wise dude"). Laurendine wanted to make the event as fun as possible for the hackers, and the day before the festival took them for make-unders at a local clothing boutique. The store decked the coders out in clothes befitting a fest - think casual urban hipster does countryside. "They gave me a hat, rolled up my pants like capris, no socks on and some chucks," Woodley says. "I liked it, I'm not gonna lie."

As soon as the team hopped in the RV for the two-hour drive, they started programming. Woodley had never been to Bonnaroo and didn't know what to expect, aside from the fact that he'd have to take his beta app (designed a week before) out to total strangers, absorb their criticism, and make it better. "Hell yeah I was nervous!" Woodley says. The RV arrived, their witchcraft practicing roadie (he "plays with spirits") parked it, and the teams started hunting for wifi in the festival.

The RV stayed in the guest area outside the grounds for the length of the 4-day fest. They were coding from the vehicle for most of the time, and the RV hotspot wifi they set up "wasn't reliable - you're out in the middle of fucking nowhere," Laurendine says. Laurendine knew in advance that would be the case, and he saw it as part of the experiment for the hackers. They couldn't google their programming problems to see how someone else had done it - they had to rely on themselves.

The hackers struggled for the first two days. They did the best they could programming locally from 9 to 5 in the RV, and then spent the evenings wandering the festival searching for stronger wifi signals using their phones. By Friday night, a friend of Laurendine's who was running a radio news tent inside the fest gave the hackers access to the space, including wifi, cold-blasted AC and a bathroom. "By Saturday, we were spending all day at the radio station, both teams,"  Woodley says.

The process of developing apps for Bonnaroo from within the festival was far from perfect. Woodley learned the hard way that he shouldn't have built the system to rely on text notifications when people posted a task. "I would literally get text messages the next day,"  Woodley says. "I'm like - whoa - are you kidding me?" He had to refund 20 customers whose tasks he missed due to slow cell service, and start thinking about new ways to communicate in the bad-cell-service environment of a music festival.

But that was the whole point of Hackeroo: to give innovative coders the chance to test their ideas out on an engaged audience just to see what happens. Laurendine, the brainstorming mind behind the event, says, "I felt like a coach: you guys have to jump on this. Pushing code when it's crap so you can improve on it and we have a starting point." In addition to being the Codefather, Laurendine moonlights as a music producer. One of his musicians was performing at the fest, so he snagged artist wristbands for the whole team, invited the hackers backstage, and introduced RooWall to groups like Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.

RooRunner creator Woodley had to turn down Laurendine's invitations backstage because he was too busy perfecting his product. He was getting suggestions (and positive feedback) from festival-goers. Knowing about the wireless communication lags, people were still willing to test his software and submit $1 requests. He tested a multitude of tasks through his app, ranging from getting water to beer, trying to figure out ID checking rules in the midst of running Roo errands and fixing  code. It was a Hackathon like no other.

At one point, Woodley received a RooRunner task request and had to weasel out of the front row of an ASAP Rocky concert while the artist leaped the stage and ran through the mosh-pitting audience. Despite being split between programming and rocking out, Woodley says Bonnaroo was "amazing" and that it may have been his first music festival but it won't be the last.

"I was more excited because it was for a certain cause, and you're involved with that cause while it happens," Woodley says. "It's more pressure, but it's a good thing because it produces a great result." The hackers were devoted enough to their products that both teams spent the last few hours of the festival hunkered down, honing the last pieces of code instead of enjoying the headliners.

Event organizer Laurendine described the hackathon as part-incubator because the app-inventors demonstrated their work to the people who mattered: the festival producers. Laurendine has big dreams about the role of technology and hackathons in music. "This is combining all of the things that I do," he says. "I see the entertainment business moving into the next world, where there's a harmony between the technology people and entertainment."

Although nothing has been finalized, Laurendine says that next year the RooRunner and RooWall services may be used as part of the official Bonnaroo app. One thing that has been formalized: Laurendine will be running another music festival hackathon from within the SF based Outside Lands in August.