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If you go
What: OpenHack Fort Wayne
When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: PNC Center, 110 W. Berry St., Suite 1806
Cost: Free
Associated Press photos
Karim Bhalwani, manager of API Strategy and Sales at Yodlee Interactive, right, speaks to participants at the FinCapDev San Francisco Hackathon in San Francisco. A record 1,500 hackathons around the world are planned for this year.

Hacking away at problems

Local hackathon encourages techies to create solutions

Fanya Young, right, and other participants work on their computers during a coding and team formation session at the FinCapDev San Francisco Hackathon in San Francisco.
Associated Press
The focus of hackathons is broadening from developing lucrative apps to solving problems with coding for an array of social and cultural issues.

No hacking hijinks here.

It used to be that hacking was just a type of crime, a computer break-in. But today, the term also is part of a growing – and perfectly legal – mainstay of the tech sector.

Computer programming competitions known as “hackathons” have spread like viruses in recent years as ways for geeks, nerds and designers to get together to eat pizza, lose sleep and create something new.

The formal, marathon group-brainstorming sessions are focused on everything from developing lucrative apps to using computer code to solve the world’s problems. This year, a record 1,500 hackathons are planned around the globe, up from just a handful in 2010. Techies in Fort Wayne have been participating in OpenHack Fort Wayne since November 2012.

“It really is gaining momentum,” said Matt Outten, a founder of the event that takes place every second Thursday. “You get people around other smart people, and they can solve problems. The more collaboration, the better.”

Outten said the sessions are pretty loose. There’s no real structure, except to bring some of the region’s creative minds together to share ideas.

Who knows, perhaps the group comes up with a fix for spam, spyware and other computing vices.

“That would be great, but that hasn’t happened yet,” said Adam O’Connor of Defiance, Ohio. O’Connor is also an organizer of OpenHack Fort Wayne. “This allows developers to learn, get help and brainstorm.”

Some members of OpenHack, for example, are working on robotics that would mix alcoholic beverages, and others are exploring a universal remote control device that could make home life simpler.

Brian Rowe is a web developer in Fort Wayne and has participated in hackathon conferences in Orlando, Fla., and San Francisco. He hopes the general public isn’t thrown off by the events’ name.

“It was just a way of putting a new spin on the word,” Rowe said. “It’s like coming together to see if you can hack out a solution to a particular problem. Basically, throwing mud at the wall and seeing what sticks.”

Well, one thing that is sticking is the government’s view of the term.

Dozens of hackers are in federal prisons for computer fraud and other cybercrimes. And the Justice Department’s cybercrime budget this year is $9 million to target offenses that include hacking.

But the new uses have popped up with increasing frequency since a pair of tech events in 1999 where developers worked together to write programs.

Yahoo gets recognition for the first official hackathon in 2005. And Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been largely credited with helping broaden the definitions by urging his staff to “hack” by “building something quickly or testing the boundaries of what can be done.”

A new Facebook option that went live in February allowing users more than 50 ways to identify their gender beyond male and female was conceived during a company hackathon four months ago.

This month, the first global hackathon for Black Male Achievement was held in Oakland, Calif. Music Hack Day is coming in Tokyo, and Hackomotive competitors will develop apps in Santa Monica, Calif., that make it easier to buy and sell cars.

During these sorts of tech-heavy, weekend competitions, teams of computer programmers, software engineers and developers huddle over monitors for hours, working up new apps for smartphones or other devices. A panel of judges selects winners, and prizes are usually awarded.

“Developers are a rare breed where they get paid a lot of money to do this job during the week, and they enjoy it so much they want to do it more on the weekend,” said Jon Gotfriend, who’s been going to hackathons for more than three years.

As such events have become more popular, a set of rules has coalesced. Teams are typically made up of a handful of people. Designs, ideas and even mock-ups can be worked on in advance, but everyone starts writing code at the same time. And teams own whatever they come up with.

OpenHack Fort Wayne is part of an international group of developers that get together to hash, uh, hack out programming problems. The effort began in Buffalo, N.Y., and has more than 70 chapters around the globe.

“It’s going really well here,” Outten said. “We get all kinds of participation, from people working on side projects to college kids trying to figure something out. It’s a great atmosphere.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.