Fuelled by coffee, Red Bull and beer, teams of developers worked through the night in Prague to hack together the best app at code.kiwi.com’s Travel Hackathon

It’s four o’clock in the morning. People are sleeping with their heads on desks, or if they’re lucky a sofa, to the gentle sound of fingers typing on keyboards.

One hacker opens the fridge and pulls out a bottle of Jägermeister and the tin of Red Bull behind it. He cracks the tin open, and places the booze back in the fridge. It is caffeine, not alcohol, that he needs. Welcome to the code.kiwi.com Travel Hackathon in Prague.

By then, the teams had been working for almost 12 hours. They were trying to find new solutions to travel problems and to build a working product that will fix them.

The pressure was on for the developers to build the best app they possibly could – Ben Finch travel hackathon
The pressure was on for the developers to build the best app they possibly could – Ben Finch

Jindra Košťál arrived with an idea but no team. He formed Safetr with others in the same boat to work on an app to make travelling in more dangerous regions safer and communicating with home easier.

He said: “We had to discuss what we were going to do for longer than some of the other teams, and we’ve made some changes to the original plan.

“We’ve also decided to add a connection to Kiwi.com so it’s more user friendly for their customers. It’s good, but it’s hard work.”

A hackathon is a long, stressful, but hopefully fun, competition for computer developers.

The closest comparison in sport is perhaps the Le Mans 24 hour race, where teams of specialists come together to make sure their car survives the gruelling endurance test, and finishes first. The difference being that in a hackathon a working programme must be coded from scratch.

Jan Bleha, Kiwi.com’s community manager, said: “A hackathon is a gathering of about 50 developers. Over their 24 hours here they try to develop a travel related application as much as they possibly can.

“It’s amazing what can be done in 24 hours when a team is working well together.”

Around fifty developers gathered in Prague to compete for €2,500 of Kiwi.com flight vouchers – Ben Finch travel hackathon
Around fifty developers gathered in Prague to compete for €2,500 of Kiwi.com flight vouchers – Ben Finch

For the winning team, there was 2,500 euro of Kiwi.com flight vouchers, and credit with Amazon Web Services to help their product take off.

The travel hackathon began with pitches from each team. Some decided to work on full-trip applications, designed to get a customer from the front door of their home to their hotel and back.

Others looked at how to make sure people have the right information about their trip, or at how to gamify travel and use augmented reality. Each was ambitious.

Ondřej Veselý, a developer and lead engineer at Kiwi.com who was a mentor at the event, said: “I loved some of the pitches. There were ideas that never came into my mind. Some of them were breathtaking.”

Most teams came into the event with their ideas fully formed. After their pitches they opened their laptops and got straight down to the coding. The rest pulled out marker pens and sheets of paper to come up with their apps as quickly as they could before the real work started.

Some teams had problems with making APIs connect properly, or with learning how to use new tools – Ben Finch travel hackathon
Some teams had problems with making APIs connect properly, or with learning how to use new tools – Ben Finch

As darkness fell over Pracovna, a co-working space in Prague, delicious Czech beer, coffee and Red Bull flowed freely. And the developers began to realise the scale of the tasks they had taken on. The problems soon started.

APIs wouldn’t connect properly and tools such as React – which creates user interfaces – may require someone who knows how to make it work.

Then there was the lack of sleep. Many of the coders had been at work, or school, all week and trying to pull an extra 24 hour shift was impossible.

Veronika Zelinková concentrates as she builds her travel application – Ben Finch travel hackathon
Veronika Zelinková concentrates as she builds her travel application – Ben Finch

Veronika Zelinková was one of only two women competing in the hackathon. Her team, Hop On, wanted to bring hitchhiking into the 21st century with a programme that connects ridehailing apps in real-time.

The high school pupil said: “It’s actually easier than we expected and I’m really enjoying it, even though it’s one o’clock and I’ve had no sleep.”

To accommodate them code.kiwi.com had hired an Airbnb nearby, and there was a quiet room full of sofas and bean bags. And by 4am there were heads sleeping on tables.

The work continued right through the next day – some problems were ironed out and some got worse.

One competitor sleeps with his head on his desk – Ben Finch travel hackathon
One competitor sleeps with his head on his desk – Ben Finch

As the hours dwindled some of the competitors started to toil on their final presentations. A number had arrived focused on the business and marketing aspects of app design. These people were now in their element figuring out how best to sell the product.

With just minutes to go before the presentation, Zelinková, who only had two hours sleep, said: “I’m confident, I think it’s good. We didn’t manage to make some of it but I think it’s ok.”

Many hackers worked through the night – Ben Finch travel hackathon
Many hackers worked through the night at the travel hackathon – Ben Finch

Panic could be the word used to describe the look on some hackers faces as they discovered their demo didn’t work quite as they had expected during their presentation. One or two other teams took to the stage with the knowledge that they hadn’t achieved what they had planned.

But most had overcome their challenges and stood in front of the judges with confidence. They told the story behind their idea, explained the tools they had used and how they had made it work.

Bleha announced the winners with the obligatory pause for tension – in third, Hop On; in second, SplitTrip, who built an app to divide travelling costs between friends. And the winner of the travel hackathon was Go There, who produced a gamified, interactive travel map.

After shaking everyone’s hands and decamping to a nearby pub for a celebratory beer, Matúš Balaščák from the winning team said: “We didn’t expect to win. I was thinking that we might come third but I never expected to win the whole travel hackathon because there were a lot of great people with great ideas but the committee decided that we won. It’s great and I’m very thankful.

Go There were the winning team with their gamified travel map – Adil Gherib travel hackathon
Go There were the winning team with their gamified travel map – Adil Gherib

“I see a lot of potential in the app. We want to continue development and I can see that we have an advantage over the other travel maps because of the social plugins and the gamification where you can earn trophies. I’m looking forward to working on it.

“I really want to visit New York and I guess this is my opportunity. I’ll start planning as soon as possible.”

Bleha said of the winners: “Go There’s map showed great potential, and our team of select judges scored it the highest on design, innovation, technology and the team’s presentation.

“We had fantastic support from our partners Amazon Web Services and we anticipate more innovation and collaboration at the next Kiwi.com hackathon.”