HackDuke codes real-life solutions

Mar. 30, 2014 @ 07:50 PM

 It wasn’t about just making the coolest program, but the coolest program that addresses a social issue.

HackDuke brought together more than 300 students from across the county to Duke University to work together to code for social good. Addressing concerns in three key areas -- education, health and wellness and inequality -- the students put their technological know-how to work to creatively help others.

“It’s been my experience as a CS programmer that I was cultivating my skills but didn’t really know how to apply them,” said Ashley Qian. “We saw this as a way to interact with social issues in a way that would benefit society.”

“We organized the one last fall and we were really pleased with it,” said Dennis Li. “It was cool on a technological level but we wanted to do more than that.”

Li and Qian are a senior and junior at Duke University and wanted the hackathon to bridge the local non-profit community with technology to help address challenges they face on a regular basis.

The winner of each theme was awarded $500 to donate to a related non-profit including the Emily K Center, Teach For America, Urban Ministries of Durham, Genesis Home, Orange County Rape Crisis Center and N.C. Coastal Federation.

Projects that addressed specific challenges the non-profits outlined were awarded $100 to donate to that non-profit under their name.

The two-day event began Saturday with students forming teams and brainstorming ideas. After hearing from non-profit representatives, the hacks began at 4 p.m. and ended at 1:30 p.m. Sunday.

The students had access to 50 technical mentors along with food, energy drinks, air sofas and for the brave in need of a different type of pick-me-up, a late-night Nerf-gun war.

About 50 projects were shown to the judges Sunday during the expo. With a DJ playing music and lunch being served, students had the opportunity to sell their projects to the judges.

Geoffrey Vedernikoff is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania who devised Tut4tat, “a tutoring program where tutoring hours are used as currency” to help students learn then teach others.

With Vedernikoff’s program, a person registers as a tutor, the areas he or she can tutor in and his or her availability. Those seeking tutors can use the information to set up times to work with a particular tutor. Upon registering and providing tutoring services, hours are earned. Those hours can be redeemed for tutoring.

“I love the thrill,” Vedernikoff said of the hackathon. “You’re working hard and the person beside you is working hard and you’re trying to stay up longer. It’s the competitive edge. But it’s also very friendly.”

Ben Cohen is a junior at the Rochester Institute of Technology and developer of Happy Bot, a Twitter account that monitors tweets for signs of depression in users, then responds with encouraging tweets.

“You’re learning awesome stuff and it’s academic with a fun twist,” said Cohen. “Here I can come and just work on something that’s truly helpful and hope that people can relate to what we’re doing.”

Judges Casey Brown and Zoe Fox definitely saw practical application for some projects they visited.

“We’ve both been to a lot of hackathons but we’re impressed with how high-quality they are and that they’re not just vanity projects,” Fox said.

“They’re really creative in how they’re solving problems,” Brown said. “The projects seem like they could actually be used in the real world.”