News / Canada

Canadian coders best in the world

After a couple of marathon all-night coding sessions, Canadian techies twice claimed their prize as the best in the world this week, taking home top honours at international contests with innovative and elegant programs that dusted the competition.

Wonder how many of your friends are married? Curious what proportion of them went to Waterloo? Well, with some help from some programmers at that university, all you’ll have to do is ask — your iPhone.

Alternatively, if you’ve always wanted to be able to share your research with the rest of your team, or check in on how your student is making out on a project, McMaster’s Groupnotes is now online.

With their voice-activated social media search engine, a team from Waterloo was voted champion of the Facebook 24-hour Hackathon last weekend. Then on Wednesday, a group of McMaster students won the 54-hour Global Startup Battle, a competition sponsored by Google and Microsoft, with their online collaboration tool, Groupnotes.

“It’s huge for Canada,” said McMaster team member Jason Moore. “It’s brings more attention to the startup communities in Toronto.”

Moore, along with teammates Matthew Gardner, Greg Connell and Sheridan College graduates Graham Kennery and Mathieu Gosbee plan to use this notoriety to promote their product at the Googleplex in California and at the Global Entrepreneurship Congress in Rio de Janiero next year. They have already listed Groupnotes on the TSX.

Groupnotes, they explain, is a collaboration tool. “As you browse any webpage, you can add virtual notes or pictures to any page and as the rest of your group browses, they’ll see everything you’ve left,” said Gardner.

“If you’re on the same page at the same time you can collaborate live (and) if you’re browsing at different times of day, it’s sort of like leaving a note on the fridge,” he said.

While the tool was originally conceived to allow businesses to avoid duplication and save time when collaborating on projects, the idea was met with unexpected enthusiasm in the education community.

“It turns out that it actually addresses some problems that educators are facing,” said Gardner. They’re now tailoring the product to allow teachers to look over their students’ shoulders virtually to see who is contributing to group projects and better understand research habits.

Judges picked the idea as best startup in the world and awarded them $35,000 dollars. Just to have their pitch considered, they had been voted into a finalist pool from more than 10,000 ideas presented at simultaneous competitions around the world.

Only days before the McMaster/Sheridan win, a Waterloo team was also selected as top in the world for creating a voice-recognition social media search app in less than 24-hours.

Students Scott Greenlay, Jinny Kim and Fravic Fernando were flown down to Facebook headquarters in Silicon Valley and beat out 17 other finalist teams from across the U.S., Brazil and Ukraine.

The only Canadian team present, the Waterloo team was stereotypically humble.

“I don’t think winning says anything about us as programmers,” Greenlay wrote in an email. “It’s more that we were able to build something that worked, looked nice, and was of interest to the judges.”

Their creation, Quin, allows users to ask questions about their Facebook friends. The app will then display the information in a user-friendly graph.

“I personally really like visual data,” said Kim in a video interview posted just after their win. “If you look at Facebook search now, it’s just a list of people or events and it doesn’t really speak to you. You can’t really get meaningful relationships between different pieces of data just by searching things on Facebook search as it is now.”

All-night coding sessions are the lore on which Facebook was built. Now the social media giant sponsors an annual 24-hour Hackathon to keep the spirit alive.

“It didn’t really feel like we were competing,” wrote Greenlay. “You were free to walk around, talk to other teams, and even help each other with problems. At the end everyone presented a bunch of cool hacks.”

The Waterloo team received $3,000 for their effort, but Greenlay says the award was outshined by the experience of simply being at Facebook HQ and basking in the presence of such luminaries as Mark Zuckerberg.

Despite all the attention that Quin has received, the Waterloo team has no plans to monetize the app and make it available to the public.

Nor are there any plans to make a BlackBerry version of the app, despite the team being based in Waterloo, the hometown of BlackBerry maker Research in Motion.

There are already others working in the voice-activated app domain, Greenlay wrote, and “it is more fun to tackle new problems.”

More on