Hackathon

Photo by Garin Fahlman

There’s a commonly held conception of hackers, computer scientists, and software designers that often involves them stealing your bank info, or being responsible for stuff you’d see in WarGames.

To be fair, there is an equally common conception that these people are digital superheroes who can control the matrix. Both of these absurd (but in the case of the matrix, perhaps welcome) misconceptions come from the fact that most people just don’t understand what computer science actually is. Computer labs aren’t exactly as cozy as libraries.

The idea behind the Think Global. Hack Local. Community Hackathon is to dispel some of the mystique around the coders and designers who create and design the software we use on a daily basis. The event was created and hosted at UBC from March 15-17, as a 48-hour overnight software creation marathon.

The event was the brainchild of Kurt Eiselt, a senior instructor of UBC’s software engineering course. The idea was inspired by other hackathons around the globe, but the focus for Eiselt was on helping the community. Working with the UBC Community Learning Initiative, Eiselt got in touch with non-profit service organizations who saw the idea and provided software goals.

Groups such as the BC Cancer Society and Delta youth organizations provided students with software development projects that would help the community and organizations.

Eiselt teamed up with Kimberly Voll, who organizes the Global Game Jam that is also held at UBC. By January, projects from the community were already being solicited. For the jam, seven major projects were being created by around 40 hackers.

Eiselt said that the goal of Think Global. Hack Local. is to give a more accurate portrayal of computer science students by giving something to the community. By 3 pm Sunday the software created at the hackathon is assessed and presented to the solicitors for them to use.

“Many hackathons use restrictive themes, or competition,” said Eiselt. “A lot of criticism of these events can be that they support extrinsic motivators instead of the love of the work.” The only thing bringing students to UBC for the weekend is for the desire to create something useful for the community.

Students arrived at UBC at around 9:30 pm on Friday to hear pitches and form groups of about 4 -7 people.

Billy Lin is a second year student who worked in a team that was creating client-tracking software for employment services. The software functions as an interactive digitized version of account information forms and is tied to clients’ online accounts.

His team is a mix of second-year, third-year, and master’s students. “Our team was made up of people from other projects. This project wasn’t quite as exciting as the others so no one chose to do it originally, so we all came together from other projects to work on this,” said Lin.

Group-mate Matt Gingrich said that most of the hackers’ only previous experience in non-school related coding assignments has been with personal hobby projects. The students are used to staying up late to work, but finals are coming soon, so every hour is valuable. “The hardest thing about the hackathon isn’t the staying up,” said Gingrich. “It’s that there’s only 100 hours left after all this to study!”

Lin and Gingrich came from groups that were even afterwards sitting at seven or eight individuals. One of the larger groups situated in the centre of the work lab had teamed up with Neil de Haan, an information systems coordinator for the BC Cancer Agency to build computer software that would allow cancer patients to keep track of medicine, meetings, and appointments.

“The hospitals have access to this data but patients don’t,” said de Haan. The group knows that for security reasons, it’s probably a long way off until software like this can integrate with hospital records and information, but they need to prove the technology can work.

“Right now clinicians can give you slips of paper, but you can lose a piece of paper easily. We hope to make scheduling hospital visits easier, because drugs are expensive and if a patient doesn’t show up for a visit because they misplaced a piece of paper, it can be even more expensive,” said de Haan.

Perhaps the biggest single team was a group that was creating some of the most complex technical content, combining animation, speech interpretation software, and gamification into a mobile iPad app intended to help build the communication skill of autistic children.

The app was solicited by Nadine Trottier, a behaviour analyst for the school board and in-home children’s behaviour consultant. Her inspiration came from a child she was once working with who was having difficulty showing signs of improvement. “There was a kid who couldn’t improve his speech after about 20 weeks,” Trottier said. “But he was always playing on the iPad, and I remember his mom saying ‘I wish that thing could make him talk.’

“It’s an idea I’ve had for a while. If you search for ‘autism’ on the app store, there will be hundreds of results, but no apps provide actual feedback for kids learning to speak,” she said. The app she is helping build at the hackathon is intended to give autistic children around ages 3 to 6 the feedback they need to actually develop their communication skills.

Trottier is incorporating behaviour analytics concepts into the software such as shaping and differential reinforcement, triggering different rewards based on a child’s skill level by tracking language acquisition and speech statistics.

But Trottier isn’t a coder, just a manager of sorts. The other six members of her team were the coding muscle behind her concept and analytics. John Tanner is a programmer for the software and was showing off the cool technology behind it.

When he fires up the app, it displays an image and prompts the user to say what the object is. “It takes speech data and creates an object animation out of that as encouragement to become more vocal and interact socially,” said Tanner. “It can detect what you’re trying to say and adjust the parameters to the child’s ability.”

The app’s complexity means it won’t be ready by the Sunday deadline, but Trottier hopes to continue working on its groundwork and eventually release it for free on iOS. “I was talking with a [speech-language pathologist] who had been collecting data and found that iPads made kids actually speak less, which is a problem when we keep tossing out these devices,” she said. The goal for the projects being built at the hackathon is to create software that can solve these kinds of problems.

Think Global. Hack Local. is a brand that hopes to spread to other communities and create a network of hackathons working to help their communities. The recent event was also the inaugural one, and it looks to have been a great success by all accounts

Kurt Eiselt and Kimberly Voll hope to organize more hackathons throughout the year and get more hackers involved in using their powers to help their community. And maybe after a while, those communities will begin to better understand those who choose to pour their heart into a keyboard.