Portal's winning widgets

Hackfest  – an annual hackathon hosted by Waterloo’s Portal team, which challenges students to create additional widgets that will enhance the Portal app experience.  Usually, this event starts and finishes in one day.  However, this year the hackathon went on for ten days straight!

In case you haven’t heard, Portal is a mobile app that pulls in a lengthy amount of Waterloo information that students need every day.  There are countless widgets.  You can access your calendar, check your WatCard balance, find out how crowded the Tim’s line is, and more. 

With the right amount of creativity, the possibilities of widgets are endless.  That’s why the Portal development team wants to hear student ideas – and this year, there were quite a few.

Coming in first place with the “countdown widget” are first-year students Jerry and Danny; while Pierre came in a close second for his pitch on a “lecture drop-in” widget.

Jerry and Danny’s Story: The Countdown Widget

Jerry and Danny standing beside their first place prizeMath student Jerry and physics student Danny have only just begun their academic career.  Both being in 1A, their friendship stemmed from the bond that is built when you’re paired together as roommates.  Hackfest sparked Jerry’s interest – developing widgets was something new that he wanted to try, and he was already familiar with the libraries and other tech listed in the event description.  It was just the perfect type of challenge. 

Of course, it’s always more fun to bring someone along to an event.  So why not ask your roommate, Danny, who you’ve probably gotten along with after two months?

After the Hackfest Kickoff, Jerry and Danny brainstormed for days.  They wanted something simple, yet also very useful.  The idea for a countdown timer finally lit up in their minds when they realized that it wasn’t too complicated to construct for a 10 day hackathon.  It was something so simple, but missing from Portal! 

What’s a countdown widget, you may ask?  It’s a widget that will list a number of events you have in the future, and provide a countdown timer for each of them.  Feel free to favourite, search, create, edit, and delete timers!  This widget gives you a visual of how much time you have left until a social event, or a due date, and helps you prioritize your list of things you need to do. 

Sometimes it’s the simplest ideas that are the greatest.  In this case, it got Jerry and Danny first place at Hackfest — congratulations!

Pierre’s Story: Lecture Drop-ins Widget

Pierre standing beside his second place prizePierre was originally a Math major.  After taking a few programming courses in his first year, he developed a passion for coding in his free time, and decided to switch into Computer Science.  Quite a bit of time has passed, and Pierre is now working his way through his third year in CS, and the Portal app is an app that he uses often.  When he saw that Hackfest was happening once again this year, he signed up, knowing this would be an excellent opportunity to gain useful experience (namely, with Angular).

So, why a lecture drop-in widget?  Well, in Pierre’s words:

“There are hundreds of lectures happening every day; researchers and experts are giving hour-long talks on a wide-range of subjects that they work on and (hopefully) are passionate about. Why not try and take advantage of that wealth of knowledge and expertise?

"Lecture drop-in is based on a really simple premise. Say you have free time in your day, and you want to learn about a subject. What if you had a widget in Portal that would let you select a subject that interests you, and it would give you a neat list of all the lectures on that topic to be given that day? That’s Lecture drop-in, and it makes it really easy to find upcoming lectures on campus. You can also use Lecture drop-in to discover courses, choose a minor, or determine which courses to enroll in next term."

Attending a hackathon for the first time may be nerve-wracking – that’s why Hackfest is a great way to ease yourself into the hacking community.  “Your idea is such an important part – your project should satisfy some need,” says Jerry. 

“It’s also your implementation that makes a difference,” Danny says.  “Even if you’re just a beginner – if you have a simple idea and incorporate it very well, you may even win.”

Pierre also has a word of advice for first-timers.  “For anyone considering doing a Hackathon, my advice would be to go for it, especially if you’re a beginner programmer. Hackathons where you work at your own pace and on your own time – like Hackfest – are a fantastic way to get introduced to the concept. In general, they offer a tremendous opportunity to learn and to strengthen a variety of skills (communication, time management, programming, etc.). In the end, you also get to see how creative you and others can be.” 

These widgets are currently getting further developed with the Portal development team.  Stay tuned and keep checking the Portal app for more news on its releases! 

Check out more stories on Portal and Hackfests.

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