HackDuke brings students together to help nonprofits

ablythe@newsobserver.comMarch 29, 2014 

— The promise of free food and a steady stream of caffeine was certainly one enticement for the hundreds of computer science majors and engineering students who opted to spend this weekend holed up together in a Duke University classroom building.

The larger mission that brought them all together was a chance to build something tangible – new software apps or robotic equipment useful to the nonprofit world promoting social change.

Ashley Qian, a Duke University junior, and Dennis Li, a senior, the lead organizers for HackDuke 2014, designed the two-day event with a theme: “Coding for Good.”

“One of the things we wanted to do was bring programmers out of the classroom to work on real projects,” Qian said Saturday during a break.

Hackathons, also known as hack days, hackfests or codefests, have been proliferating on college campuses for several years now.

The events bring students together to get hands-on experience outside classroom curricula that sometimes don’t show how the textbook theories and formulas are applied to real-world scenarios.

“Here students can take risks and work with each other on cool projects,” Qian said.

For 24 hours, the students will work as teams or individuals to develop software or hardware that could help the nonprofit companies and charities invited to the event. The students’ solutions will emerge Sunday afternoon. The teams that best address the issues of education, inequality, and health and wellness will be awarded prizes.

Among the organizations that could benefit from their ideas are DurhamCares – which strives to leverage individual, business and church-based assets to help with affordable housing, homelessness and education – as well as Community Empowerment Fund, Genesis Home and Urban Ministries of Durham.

Companies such as Google, ESPN, MongoDB and Palantir had tables set up at the event as part of a networking opportunity that gives students a chance to explore job prospects and offers recruiters a chance to connect with talent.

Randall Hunt, a “Hackathoner” who has worked at MongoDB for the past three years in the New York office, said he goes from hackathon to hackathon to build friendships and get to know the up-and-comers from the college world.

There are many programmers and code developers in the expanding field of software development, Hunt said, but finding the right match for the right company can be vexing.

“It’s actually hard to find talented developers,” Hunt said.

Many hopefuls, though, had dedicated their weekend to trying to help nonprofit groups develop apps to help them keep track of fundraisers or think of ways to collate global data for local problem-solving.

Joshua Miller, a sophomore at Duke, won the hackathon last year with a robotic prototype that he and three others – Sai Cheemalapati, Zach Bears and Michael Deng – built. With a glove, sensors and computer, the device translates sign language into speech.

“It was a really, really, really rewarding experience,” Miller said Saturday as he waited for a chance for his team to begin working on the weekend’s problems.

Li, one of the lead organizers, recalled another favorite from the last fest at Duke. Someone came up with the idea for a toaster that makes toast if the person wanting toast did enough jumping jacks.

‘Nothing revolutionary’

The students are limited by time.

The apps and devices they design are unlikely to be in marketable shape by the end of the weekend.

“Nothing too big, nothing too revolutionary will happen here,” Qian said. “You won’t see the thing that makes waffle toast and makes the bed at the same time.”

But Sean Crenshaw, Louis Michael and Jordan White, three Virginia Tech students at the event, said revolutionary ideas were not necessarily what pulled them to DukeHack. They came for the fellowship, experience, networking opportunities and collaborative spirit.

“It really pushes you,” said White, who hails from Greenville. “It’s hard sometimes to stay motivated when you’re in your dorm room.”

Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1

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