RunKeeper Hack-a-Thon (January 2014)

Here Be RunKeepers SmallLast week we had a two-day hack-a-thon here at RunKeeper. It was a great opportunity to break out of our normal roles, maybe to prototype that one feature the app has been desperately missing, or perhaps to pitch that brand or marketing idea that might seem too daring in another context. There were about 10 team projects total, all of which were bold and innovative, and some of which seemed like they might actually be good ideas in practice.

My team was mostly made up of other data folks, because apparently spending every day with our desks practically on top of one another isn’t enough quality time together. We decided to break out of our comfort zone a bit and play around with some geo tools, leveraging Mapbox to create the ability for users to add multiple friends’ routes to custom maps. The idea was that a user would be able to customize their map style, choose which of their friends were displayed on the same map as theirs, and even get an “exploration score” based on what percentage of a given map they had uncovered.

For my part, I ended up learning a bit about Mapbox’s API, playing around with their web app, and even producing some of my own custom map tiles from OpenStreetMap data using TileMill. Even though you can’t go far beyond basic palette changes with the web app, there’s still some fun to be had there—after all, what true Boston sports fan wouldn’t prefer to see their RunKeeper trips on a map with Red Sox, Celtics, Patriots, or Bruins colors?

“Red Sox Nation”

“Celtic Pride”

“Go Pats!”

“The Black and Gold”

Once I started styling shapefiles directly in TileMill using its CSS-like language, then we really started to let our imaginations run wild. For example, maybe our users would prefer to see their routes on an antique parchment map, or in the style of an old-school monochrome computer monitor, or on a map where the greater Boston area looks like the frozen Hoth-like wasteland we sometimes believe it to be. Well, by downloading some freeware fonts and adding some gratuitous texturing, we can make it so.

“Here Be RunKeepers”

“The Only Way to Win Is Not to Run”

“The #PoweredByPolar Vortex”

Hack-a-Thon TropyUnfortunately, despite the rich new worlds of imagination we created for our users to explore—not to mention all the other great tech our team created—the competition was just too fierce for us to take home the top prize. We did, however, win “Hackiest Project”, which as a ragtag group of amateur cartographers we consider a badge of honor. Besides, the trophy we got was pretty dope, and fully captures the rage I felt trying to comprehend the arcane jargon of the OpenStreetMap community. (Wait, there’s a difference between “aerialway” and “aeroway”??) And of course, the most important thing is that we had fun and learned a lot.

Actually, that’s not true. I think the real most important thing was the hack-a-thon project of our support team (who call themselves “Supportlandia”). They built a bar in the break room.


Nicholas Arcolano

Senior Data Scientist at TrueMotion. Formerly Runkeeper, MIT Lincoln Laboratory, Harvard SEAS Ph.D. Loves running, though it doesn't always love him back.

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