I learned of hackathons before. It sounded interesting, but either they were too far away, the topic was not interesting enough, or the date was already booked. This time was different. The topic is really what made it interesting enough. FinTech is about new technology in finance. I’m sure there was innovation in the financial industry in the last 50 years, but it was not very visible, and not as fast as in other industries. Recently I read about an employee in a bank that was asked upon his retirement, what was the biggest change in the last 40 years in his job. His answer was : “air conditioning”.
With the advent of BitCoin, the financial sector started feeling some pressure to innovate. I don’t really know how the term FinTech was born, but this all might have contributed. So one thing was clear for me about the hackathon from the beginning: The project had to be about BitCoin.
SIX is probably one of (if not the) biggest service providers in Swiss finance. They run the Swiss stock exchange, most card terminals in brick and mortar shops and PayNet where people can receive electronic invoices in their online banking. These are only the most visible products. They organized the hackathon for the first time a year ago. This time it was in two locations: Zürich and London. Watching last years videos I realized that the event would be organized much better than I expected. And the actual event was even better than the videos promised.
So I went to the Schiffbau which is a former ship building factory turned into theater. Everything was prepared, and we were welcomed with a dinner. The opening ceremony included a very entertaining speech from an editor of the Wired magazine. Next were presentations for the four workshops. I watched “Blockchain, Smart Contracts and Beyond” and “Cognitive Computing in Fintech”. Both were interesting, but not exactly what I expected.
Some teams were already formed, the others went to the match making session. Everybody who had an idea for a project could present it in a few sentences. Then the teams were formed. The Idea I presented to implement a bridge between PayNet and BitPay didn’t spark a lot of interest, so I helped implementing another endeavor.
Our team set out to implement a bridge between PayMit and BitCoin, thus we named it BitMit. I knew the name was familiar, but it took me a while to remember that BitMit was also the long defunct Marketplace that worked like eBay, but with BitCoin. The responsibilities were quickly found: Iwan would implement the IOS app, Mark would implement the management dashboard, Roger was responsible for the Presentation of our project and I implemented the backend.
We received an API for PayMit that came with an example app. The app had buttons for buying certain products. So Iwan replaced the buttons for different denominations of popular crypto currencies. When a button was clicked, the app would first execute the payment using the PayMit API and then communicate with our BitMit backend. Finally it displays a receipt including the BitCoin transaction ID. Apparently working with Apple’s XCode is a very special experience that is far from intuitive.
The back-end was responsible for providing a simple API for the IOS app, interacting with the BitCoin blockchain and managing a BitCoin hot wallet. We chose python and flask to do the task. Most members in our team were familiar with python and flask. I only implemented a very small project with flask a few years ago, but that knowledge was almost enough for the task at hand. I wanted to make use of electrum servers to have it lite weight. But Friday and Satturday we wanted to use the BitCoin testnet, and unfortunately there are no electrum servers for testnet. So I went with BitCoinCore.
At first we were not so sure where the backend would run. My notebook would be good enough for the time being. But then the guy from IBM offered to have it running on their cloud. He helped me setting everything up. When connecting with ssh to the ubuntu machine, I didn’t even realize that it ran inside a docker container. And the beast was fast! With the 48 cores and a fast internet connection, the BitCoin blockchain was synchronized in less than six hours.
Compliance and auditing is very important for Banks. Thus our Service has to have a means of keeping track what is going on. Mark implemented the front-end using React. I certainly heard this buzzword before, but never saw actual code. It’s quite cool how simple the code looks when the task fits the framework.
The presentation or pitch was allowed two minutes max. And a gong would terminate it abruptly on stage. The first iterations were roughly twice that long. It was hard to cut it down to the right duration. Too valuable all the information we wanted to communicate. Roger had a very good opening, which I don’t even know if it was still part of the final pitch.
Before entering the final, we gave the pitch a couple of times. Most important was the presentation to the jury. After the pitch the judges could ask us questions. One guy obviously had no clue about how BitCoin works. When this guy was later presented as member of the board and announced the winners, I felt our chances dramatically dwindling.
I took a video of the pitch Roger and Iwan gave for the final on the main stage. It is streaming from the ipfs.
Our project might be not the most novel idea, but it fills a need. Other projects that were presented sound very funny at first but after thinking it through you don’t think anybody would use it. Still others had only fancy slides but nothing functional to show. But there were also projects that made a really good impression. That is probably the expected outcome from a hackathlon.
For me it was a fun and entertaining experience. I will surely participate in other hackathlons. A big thanks to SIX for organizing the event and for all the good food and drinks we enjoyed.
An interesting fact that I observed was the computers used by the participants. About 90% of them were from apple. Most of the remaining computers ran some kind of flavor of linux. And I saw a single one running Windows.