Hackathon aims to better the lives of the disabled

The USC Association for Computer Machinery hosted the SS12 Hackathon: Code for a Cause on campus this weekend to increase awareness of issues in accessible computing. The hackathon encouraged the participants to create applications that will help better the lives of those who are disabled.

Teamed with Project:Possibility, an open source project that makes a powerful difference in the lives of disabled persons and software developers through open source software development, this event had more than 60 student sign-ups, including both undergraduate and graduate students.

Angelica Huyen Tran, a junior majoring in computer engineering and computer science, said that the event was  not just a regular hackathon because the apps that result from it will be used to benefit disabled people’s lives. Tran has been on the executive board of ACM for three years.

“In the previous year, we had an app that took in sound and identified whether it was a siren or a baby crying for people who are deaf. The app would flash the color on the screen corresponding to the respective sounds,” Tran said. “It’s really cool because you can get a bunch of apps for a good cause.”

The hackathon started Friday evening with a presentation on possible projects. Then, teams were formed and were given until 12:30 p.m. to code and until 2 p.m. on Sunday to prepare a presentation and a demo of their app. Food was provided throughout the event and prizes awarded included an external battery and Tetris lamp.

One group created an app in both Android and iOS versions for the hearing impaired.

“It relies heavily on visuals and tactile stimulus in order to convey rhythm. We wanted to emulate Dance Dance Revolution-type interface. We had to make a bunch of compromises moving forward given the time constraint,” said Joseph Goelz, a sophomore majoring in computer science.

Goelz said it was a valuable learning experience for him and helped him improve his coding skills.

“I feel this was the perfect way to get further involved [in programming] and my app development skills were nonexistent before,” Goelz said. “I’ve always been meaning to do it but I’m always afraid to set aside the time. It’s a big commitment, for a full weekend because I’ve always had homework assignments.”

Goelz said Professor David Kempe inspired him to stay in computer science through his unique and interesting approach to learning. In the future, Goelz hopes to improve his app.

“Realistically, it’s about a two-star app because there are bugs still and lots of functionalities that still could be added but for effort, five stars,” Goelz said.

In order to prepare the participants for this 36-hour hackathon, ACM hosted two workshops last week on Android and web development because these were the two most common ways people build apps for hackathons.

Another group created a multiplayer game app that uses a combination of high and low pitches. The goal of this game is to avoid crashing into obstacles by deciding whether to lean left or right using the emitted sounds.

Tran said there were mentors, mostly alumni, who are now working in the industry, throughout the event to help the participants.

“Hackathons in general are very useful to pick up some good computer science skills outside of the classroom. Participants also got to learn the full cycle of a project from start to finish while also learning to work in a team environment,” Tran said.