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Hacking technology for the social good

group of people sitting and working on computers

October 05, 2015

It’s only a few hours into the second annual Hacks 4 Humanity hackathon on Saturday, Oct. 3, and already cases of energy drinks are being wheeled into Stauffer Hall on Arizona State University’s Tempe campus.

They’ll come in handy as participants, gathered around tables and huddled over laptops, will have worked for 36 hours straight by the time the ASU Project Humanities-sponsored event comes to a close Sunday evening.

The so-called “hackathon for the social good” asks participants to create technology solutions and initiatives that address the needs of humanity, with the seven principles of Project Humanities’ “Humanity 101” movement in mind: compassion, empathy, forgiveness, integrity, kindness, respect and self-reflection.

The people who have chosen to dedicate their weekend to this cause are techies, programmers, developers, humanists, artists, students, educators and creative visionaries of all ages and walks of life.

“I’m amazed how people come together for this. They’re so committed,” said Neal Lester, ASU professor of English and creator and director of Project Humanities, an award-winning university initiative that “seeks to connect the university and local communities in talking, listening and connecting ... to create positive change in people and communities across political, socioeconomic, geographic and cultural boundaries, and in our daily lives.”

Sharon Torres, coordinator of the initiative, said the hackathon capitalizes on society’s ever-evolving love affair with technology. 

“Technology has become the language we speak, and social media has become our way to be in touch with the world — so we might as well use it for the greater good." — Sharon Torres, Project Humanities coordinator

“Some might argue that the younger generation’s attachment to social media has created an insularity that disconnects them on a human level. The truth is … technology does not have to surpass our humanity. Technology can be used to enable us to connect on a very human level, and the innovative ideas we anticipate to come out of this year’s Hacks for Humanity will prove that,” she said.

This year, those ideas ranged from apps that assist in calming car-crash victims to finding kidney donors to helping pedestrians better navigate cities.

Participant Kate Pond explained her group’s idea of a website designed to help people reach personal goals. An intern with a local media company, Pond decided to participate in the hackathon as a way to be more involved in her community and to stoke her own creativity.

“It’s nice to give back,” she said. “And I think it’s always fun to meet new people and just get your creative juices flowing.”

Roaming from team to team were members of last year’s Hacks 4 Humanity winning team, ARKHumanity, who were there to serve as mentors.

ARKHumanity created software that mines Twitter feeds for keywords that suggest suicidal thoughts. Humans then assess whether the tweet should be acted upon and, if so, they will have a series of interventions available to make connections to the individual, start conversations or share valuable information about services that could support them.

ARKHumanity team member and University of Phoenix faculty Kacie McCollum said she wanted to return as a mentor this year “to continue to do the work that we did and inspire others, especially getting the community involved in working with students … When you’re working with groups from all ages and all walks of life, you get something incredible and that’s exactly why I chose to mentor, because it was life-changing for me.”

After two grueling days of brainstorming, coding and occasionally sleeping, team “Cope Better” was announced as the winner of this year’s Hacks 4 Humanity hackathon, for the ADHD-coping app, “Violette.”

“Violet is the color of compassion and the reason behind the decision [for the name],” said team member Yashwanth Nanda Kumar, a recent ASU grad and the co-founder and CEO of Sential, a medical device start-up.

The prize for team “Cope Better” was a package that included further mentorship from Project Humanities, an invitation from the Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation to a boot camp in December and an iPad Air 2.

“It definitely feels really awesome to win the hackathon. We believed totally in our product, as it was designed after extensive brainstorming, talking to experts, talking to people who had known people with ADHD, mentors and friends who gave valuable feedback along the way,” said Kumar. “Also, the experience of being in that space, meeting strangers who became friends and getting opportunities to actually put the principles in action by helping out others and receiving help from my fellow teams, it was amazing.”

Other members of the team were Bauer Doski, a senior in psychology at ASU; Rutvik Joshi and Krishnakant Mishra, both ASU grad students in computer science; and local community member and engineer Kelly Macshane.

“Violette” is an interactive behavioral therapy app that provides an interface between individuals diagnosed with ADHD and their parents. It features puzzles and games that help them to focus their attention when they are experiencing symptoms of the disorder.

Kumar said they wanted to create “a product which can potentially change the scenario of kids with ADHD and reunite families though an interactive process.”

Plans are already in motion to take the app from its current version to a beta version, and the team has received offers from fellow hackathon participants to assist in that endeavor.

“We will definitely consider other competitions at ASU to raise seed money and opportunities to establish a company and grow it further,” said Kumar.

In second place this year was “Loop Learn,” another learning-disability app, and in third was “Ayy LMAO,” a guard-dog app that detects physical trauma (such as a fall) via sensors in a phone and alerts emergency personnel.

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