This past week, NYUAD hosted the first-ever International Hackathon for Social Good in the Arab World. For three days, more than 50 computer science students, academics, and experts from around the globe worked together to develop mobile and web applications to solve social issues in the region. Students learned about new practices in software development and the basics of entrepreneurship through a series of interactive workshops focused on topics including HTML 5, mobile development for smart phones, and web security, all the while being mentored by more than 30 guest speakers from participating universities and organizations such as Yahoo!, the Grameen Foundation, LinkedIn, Random Hacks of Kindness, the Microsoft Corporation, and the World Bank.
NYUAD students also took part and presented demos of their innovative ideas in two other teams. The Cafe Roulette team, whose members included sophomores Kun Lao, Francis Hilda Frathoso, Will Seonmin Heo, and Seung Man Oh, created a mobile application that enhances the social interaction between people with similar interests. "Our solution makes this intersection of interests known to two individuals located in the vicinity, thus lowering the barrier for starting a conversation," explained the students.
The team worked with leader David Hutchful, technical program manager of the Grameen Foundation in Ghana. "I was amazed by the hard work and enthusiasm of my team who, despite being mostly sophomores, set the bar very high," he said. "What really touched me was their perseverance, their ability to learn fast."
Juan Felipe Beltran, another NYUAD sophomore, was one of the members of the SMS Micro-novel team that came up with an application to provide women in rural areas of the Middle East with tools to continue practicing their reading skills outside the classroom by receiving short fragments of a micro-novel as a text message on their phones.
In addition to the 14 NYUAD sophomores who participated in the Hackathon, students from UAE institutions including Zayed University, Abu Dhabi University, and the Masdar Institute also took part. The event also attracted students from colleges and universities in Algeria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Palestine, Qatar, Syria, and the US.
"It's exciting to see how a broader idea gets to the specifics — it's like building a bridge, from the concepts to the implementation," said Will Pate, the global community manager of Canada's Random Hacks of Kindness. Team leaders Arjun Venkatraman, of CGNet Swara in India, and Jay Bhalla, of World Bank, in Kenya, agreed that the Hackathon was the first event of its kind that was so international and well structured, with each team creating a smoothly working demo.
"All of you are winners tonight," said Sana Odeh to the participants during the closing ceremony. Odeh, a member of the NYUAD Affiliated Faculty and an NYUNY clinical associate professor of computer science, was the driving force behind the event. "Seeing the energy and enthusiasm of the youth in the region, I felt that this event could help students to exchange ideas, to learn from each other, and to realize the potential of computer science to solve global problems."
At the end of the third day — after watching the student teams demo their applications — the jury announced the winning teams during a special ceremony. "Sustainability and social impact were the two parameters that many of us relied on the most in our decision making," said Jeffrey Avina, a member of the jury and the citizenship and community affairs director for Microsoft Middle East and Africa.
First prize went to Jordan University of Science and Technology (JUST) students Hamza Al Kofahi and Ahmad Malkawi for their KineTherapy application. The "physical therapy game" uses Microsoft's Kinetic technology to monitor a patient's movements against an animated guide, thereby directing his or her therapy program, and aims at making physiotherapy fun, as well as more effective and cost-saving. "This idea belongs to the kids that are in continuous pain," said Malkawi, a fourth-year computer engineering student. "I will try my best with my team in Jordan to proceed as quickly as possible."
Second place went to the Open Mena team, comprised of two NYU New York students — Max Stoller and Tengchao Zhou — who worked with Monir Abu Hilal from Princess Sumaya University for Technology (PSUT) in Jordan to design a web-based platform that provides computer programmers with government data in an accessible format; more specifically, a dynamic data feed that can be used by developers to create applications to leverage the open data.
NYUAD sophomores Katy Blumer, Alice Tessen, and Nishant Mohanchandra — along with Halim Lagrid and Ali Taqi from the American University of Kuwait — won third place for their Makindu Children's Center Database Project, an application that increases the efficiency of NGOs in submitting records and reports to donors. Their team leader was Michael Paik, a PhD candidate at NYU's Courant Institute.
The NYUAD students originally came up with the idea during a spring break trip to the Makindu Children's Center in Kenya earlier this year. "The orphanage needed a better system to communicate the children's statuses and needs to the donors supporting them," said Blumer. "As it stands, the plan is to continue working with the Makindu Project so that it might be fully implemented in the orphanage we visited, along with any other NGOs we can spread the program to."
I was amazed by the hard work and enthusiasm of my team who, despite being mostly sophomores, set the bar very high.