Students at Penn hack for social change
Students and professionals develop apps and programs in hackathon
March 19, 2012, 4:04 am·
Many students might associate 54 straight hours without sleep with reading week or midterms. But from March 16 to March 18, about 60 “hackers” volunteered more than two sleepless nights to try to make the world a better place.
These Penn students, along with developers and representatives from tech companies and NGOs came together as part of Hack the Change, a three-day hackathon dedicated to solving social issues related to international development, atrocities prevention and humanitarian aid.
Developers, designers and mentors from NGOs and the engineering world worked in teams to design “hacks” including web programs and phone applications.
“What’s really great is that you’re bringing together two different communities,” said Penn Society for International Development president and Wharton junior Ryan Villanueva. “Usually the engineering and development communities don’t get a chance to interact, and that’s where a lot of value is. You get a much better product than if you were working independently.”
On March 16, several organizations including the city of Philadelphia and PennSID — which also organized the hackathon — presented issues they faced that they believed technology could help solve.
Afterwards, tech companies including Yahoo and Twilio — a company that helps other businesses design innovative telecommunication strategies — presented APIs, or systems that hackers could use to build their projects on.
“Everyone gets to learn a little from everyone else, which is a really cool thing about hackathons,” said Joe Tricarico, a software developer for Azavea, a geospatial analysis software development firm, who worked with other developers and former PennSID president, Engineering and College senior Ben Brockman, to design the winning hack. The program, called Monitor Squared, allows organizations to track their election monitors who are working abroad.
Tricarico and Brockman’s team won $1000, while the runner up received $500 and the third place team won $250. Other hacks included several applications designed to connect prospective volunteers with opportunities in the community and a system for alerting nearby phones about crisis situations.
“The entire weekend I was doubting whether I could actually push out the application, especially considering I was working by myself,” said Engineering junior Sandy Sun, who designed a mobile app to encourage people to quit smoking. “It was an idea that I was really passionate about so even if no one was willing to come on board I decided to do it anyway. It was a wonderful experience. The technology I used this weekend I had never used before.”
Hack the Change co-organizers College and Engineering junior Pratham Mittal and Wharton junior Casey Rosengren had both competed in and won previous hackathons. They agreed the model would be a good way to serve PennSID’s mission, and decided to bring Hack the Change to Penn. Unlike other hackathons like PennApps, Hack the Change’s problem statements focused hackers’ potential ideas, Mittal said.
“This is our way of making the hacks more relevant and impactful,” he said. “They’re actually going to be used by the agencies presenting here.”
The mentors who came from tech organizations and NGOs volunteered their time, and most were pleased with the products created by students and developers.
“To finally see these students martial the incredible power they wield towards real change is really heartening,” said Twilio senior developer evangelist Rob Spectre. “As developers, we encounter mostly commercial problems.”
PennSID plans to continue the event next year, but will consider moving it to campus to attract more students. Overall, mentors, developers, students and organizers seemed pleased with the unique structure of the event.
“There are people dying in the world because they can’t afford a $2 shot,” said Engineering junior Jonathan Leung, whose project finished in third place. “As engineers, we can actually do something about that. Technology … probably can’t save the world, but [it] can help a little bit.”