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Data-driven solutions shine at Penn’s social impact hackathon

At Penn's "Hack the Change," students worked with participating NGOs. "The very nature of the event ... guaranteed that the project and the hard work we put in would meet a real need," said one student hacker.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mixed up the 1st and 3rd place teams. The story has been updated. (11/7/14, 7:02 p.m.)
Impact is more valuable when you can actually measure it.

That was the driving idea behind the top teams at Hack the Change, Penn’s annual social impact hackathon hosted by the Penn Society of International Development. The event, held Oct. 17-18, aimed to bridge the gap between technology and international development — by creating tangible solutions.

With a growing focus being placed on data analytics and the use of data-driven research in improving social impact, the top teams of this year’s Hack the Change event came up with applications that focused on collecting data and analyzing it. That way, NGOs can improve their operations.

hack for change

The team from Maryland. (Photo courtesy of Hack the Change)

The 1st place team was a trio of University of Maryland freshmen, Sean Bae, Alexander Zhang and Colin King, who built an app for the Solidarity Center in Bangladesh. The winning web app allows workers in Bangladesh to report abuses in working conditions through anonymous texts. The goal is to help leaders of trade unions track down and respond to unsafe working conditions in Bangladesh.

“I loved how Hack the Change offered me an opportunity to work on a real-life project that can create tangible improvements on people’s lives,” Bae said after the hacking was over. “Normally, I would not have connections to NGOs or opportunities to directly contribute to these causes, but Hack the Change did an amazing job in bridging that gap.”

Student hackers from the team that worked with the Peace Corps.

Student hackers from the team that worked with the Peace Corps. (Photo courtesy of Hack the Change)

The 2nd place team featured Penn freshmen Austin Eng, Isabel Ren and Ricky Rajani, who were paired with Peace Corps Director of Innovation Patrick Choquette to create an app that offers real-time mapping of Peace Corps volunteers. It also has a leaderboard displaying which areas have the most volunteers, and statistics on total contributors in various areas.

Choquette emphasized the importance of this app in helping the Peace Corps make its operations more efficient.

“I really told them to focus on building something functional and something I could use by the end of the weekend,” he said. “And it’s amazing how these students were able to put together all these features that I can immediately use after this event.”

One of those students, Isabel Ren, was also amazed.

“This was my first time participating in a real hackathon and I thought it was amazing to work with mentors and apply my skills to real-world problems,” she said. “I also realized that my work can actually have a substantial impact on the world.”

Hack for Change

The food hotspot tracking team presenting their app. (Photo courtesy of Hack the Change)

To round out the top 3, Penn students Yoni Nachmany, Ben Sandler, Nancy Wong and Max McCarthy built a food hotspot locator app, which addressed a food insecurity problem the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is working on.

The app uses information from Twitter to identify regions of food insecurity. Through this data — gathered from keywords in Twitter feeds and visualized in a map which plots areas in need of food resources — WFP workers can have an easier time focusing their efforts, and identifying which places need immediate help.

Learn more about Hack the Change 2014 projects

For Penn engineering freshman Austin Eng, who has participated in various hackathons since high school, Hack the Chnage was “one of the most rewarding by far.”

“The very nature of the event and the close communication with mentors and benefitting organizations guaranteed that the project and the hard work we put in would meet a real need,” Eng said. “I walked away from the event knowing that I had applied my skills and design experience to a project, which had a quantifiable impact and would benefit the Peace Corps greatly.”

Companies: University of Pennsylvania

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