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Alexey Komissarouk
33rd Street

Credit: Alexey Komissarouk

“Be cooler than Mark Zuckerberg!” shouted Jonathan, standing to my left and brandishing a PennApps poster twice his size.

We were standing on Locust Walk during the Fall Activities Fair, trying to lure freshmen into giving us their email addresses so we could tell them all about entrepreneurship and technology and building cool apps and all sorts of good stuff. This was for the PennApps hackathon, slated for this weekend. “Take over the internets,” he continued. “With lolcats!”

Surprisingly enough, it worked. We collected more than 150 signatures. Not bad for a club on its first visit to the Fall Activities Fair for at least a couple of years.

In Mark’s Café on Monday, I found students eating by themselves and asked what they’d heard about technology and entrepreneurship on campus. I got a few blank stares, but then the answers started trickling out.

Alex Devine, a third-year English graduate student, told me about the digitization of medieval manuscripts, a movement for which Penn received a $300,000 grant in May. “Usually, I’m at the library all day with a manuscript,” he explained. “Now I can look at the manuscripts online from [Mark’s] Café.”

College junior Robbie Berg mentioned a friend taking a semester off to pursue a startup full-time. The friend was Jim Grandpre, a would-be Engineering junior and the startup was Coursekit. One of whose “Want to kill Blackboard? We’re looking for hackers” recruiting posters from last semester still hangs in room 207 in the Moore building.

More than a few people I spoke to mentioned that their friends were involved in some coding/tournament/application/thing happening in the Engineering School, where people built apps over the course of a weekend and (apparently) had a ton of fun. “Do you mean PennApps?” I asked. “Yes,” they nodded. “That’s the one!”

Like a faint electric buzz, excitement about new ways to use technology is permeating throughout campus. As your tech columnist, I’ll be doing my best to make you aware of some of the cooler stuff going on. I won’t pretend to be particularly broad-based (I’m a computer science major, and when I say technology it will usually mean software and maybe a little bit of hardware) or unbiased (I’m one of the organizers of the PennApps hackathon and friends with a fair number of the Penntrepreneurs I intend to cover), but at least it’ll be interesting.

This is a good time for a tech column. The world is changing. Penn is playing a part.

Ideas are cheap. Advances in hardware and software are making execution (at least enough to put up a prototype) fast and cheap as well. Tech has become a great enabler for ideas to go out into the market and get feedback from real customers.

CIS 110, “Introduction to Computer Programming,” has grown by 29 percent to 220 students this semester and is now at full capacity. There are so many people with ideas looking for engineers that there is now a blog dedicated purely to their trials and tribulations. Penn has not one but two Penn-specific Groupon clones.

Jim Young, one of the founders of Hot or Not, is teaching an iPhone development course this semester.

PennApps, which started two years ago as an application development competition with a $250 Bookstore gift card as a grand prize is now a weekend-long hackathon sponsored by Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Yahoo, Comcast, Hulu and Mozilla, just to name a few. The grand prize has gone up to $2,500. Student attendance is measured in the hundreds.

The products have also gotten better. So far, students have built apps to let you know when your dorm has available washers, to find where exactly that one book is in Van Pelt, and to send your assignments to print from your phone.

At 2 p.m. on Sunday in the Engineering quad, students will show off their weekend PennApps. The next Zuckerberg (or two) are somewhere in that crowd, exhausted from staying awake all weekend but excited to show the world what they’ve built. You won’t want to miss it.

Alexey Komissarouk is an Engineering senior from Donetsk, Ukraine. His email address is 33rd Street appears every other Thursday.

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