Hackathon Creates a Community of App Developers

HackRice 2016 drew over 400 participants from Rice and other universities, creating a community of undergraduate and graduate students interested in developing software applications and other projects. These students grouped into 80-90 teams to develop products like apps to assist dementia patient caregivers, data visualization, converting SSH to SMS, and new video games.

The HackRice 2016 team working on an app for tracking the rehabilitation progress of stroke patients demonstrated inter-collegiate collaboration at its best. Students from five public and private universities formed the team led by Kay Igwe from Columbia University, who first proposed the project.

Stroke Recovery App Team

The multi-university team that developed a Stroke Recovery Tracking App at HackRice includes (from left to right), Sung Park from UT-Austin, Minh Hoang from TCU, Alison Mak from UH, Alice Ran Zhou from Cornell, and Kay Igwe from Columbia.

“I knew someone who had a stroke,” explained Igwe, “and although his doctors and therapists could see progress, he often felt he’d been at the same plateau for a month or more.  He would become discouraged and want to give up.”  When she applied to participate in HackRice 2016, she included a project proposal for an app to track the progress of stroke victims. “I knew from this person’s experience that if a stroke patient sees even a little progress, they are encouraged to continue their therapy. So I wanted to work on an app that allows the patient to track their own progress.”
Alice Zhou from Cornell University, Minh Hoang from Texas Christian University and Sung Park from the University of Texas at Austin saw Igwe’s project on the list of opportunities for HackRice and expressed interest in working on it.

“Sung was very formal when he contacted me,” recalled Igwe.  “He told me what [languages and tools] he was good at and even offered to send me his resume. I knew he was legit.”  Park, who is interested in communication engineering, said Igwe’s project was top on his list.  “The stroke recovery progress tracker and an app on machine learning were my top two choices.”

Igwe then looked at Alice.  “Alice was the complete opposite of Sung,” she said.  Zhou agreed, “I told Kay I am only a freshman and had almost no hardware experience, but I did have experience with front-end design and biostatistics research.”  Igwe picked up the story again, “Something made me want to know more about her, so we Skyped each other and after we talked for 30 minutes, she was in.”

“Minh’s experience was like Sung’s,” Igwe continued and Minh picked up the thread of how their team came together.  “I really wanted to work on an app that had a good chance of being developed, but I didn’t even know I had gotten in until the week before the hackathon because my confirmation was stuck in my spam folder.”

Park learned about the team shortly before HackRice began.  “I was planning to be in a UT-Austin and UH team with some of my friends in Houston,” he explained, “but they didn’t get in.”  He reached out to Igwe about her project about 24 hours before arriving at Rice.

“Then Alice said ‘let’s start a group’ that same day,” Igwe continued the story, “so we did and we all met for the first time here.”  She laughs, “We just sort of took over this table, I don’t know who was assigned to it.” Alison Mak, from the University of Houston, was the final member of the team.  “Alice and I recognized each other when we arrived here at Rice. We’d been roommates two summers ago.” Zhou agreed. “We were at the same computer science camp in Austin, but we hadn’t seen each other since. Seeing each other here was unexpected.” Mak said, “the project sounded intense, but I was up for the challenge. I had experience coding in Java. Alice and the team had room for one more member!”

Competition to participate in the fifth annual HackRice event was fierce.  All the non-Rice applicants were screened by the hackathon organizers and many were not accepted.  “People with extensive hackathon experience didn’t get in,” said Park.  Igwe and Zhou looked at each other and spoke almost simultaneously,  “I think our enthusiasm is what got us in,” said Igwe while Zhou was saying, “I applied almost immediately after the application opened.”

The other members of the team also took their applications seriously, almost as serious as applying for an internship or job. “This is my first hackathon,” said Mak. “I coded in high school, but it’s been awhile. I’m a freshman studying mechanical engineering, but computing was something that I always found interesting. ”
Park is also new to hackathons. “Since I got accepted at the very end of the application period, and also because this is my first Hackathon, I did not know what to expect. When I got to HackRice, I was surprised by how many companies were here wanting to meet us.”

HackRice team working on stroke recovery tracking app at 8AM Sunday morning.

One hour before the deadline to submit their app, the Stroke Recovery Tracking team is troubleshooting issues. They have worked around the clock for 35 hours, sleeping in turns for a few hours at a time, usually on the floor beside their table.

HackRice team troubleshooting app
Now that the hacking is over, the team is waiting to find out when and where they will give the judges their presentation on the stroke recovery tracking app, but they don’t appear nervous. Park is the first admit winning isn’t the real driver for his participation. He says he’s working on this app because, “I am interested in analyzing the interaction between the hardware and the human body.” Hoang adds, “I come to this hackathon not to show off my talent, but to see how insignificant my talent is. Learning, working as a team and going to workshops are the best parts about HackRice.”” Igwe also appreciates the opportunity to learn and grow with her team. “No matter what happens,” Igwe says with confidence, “I had a lot of fun. I had SO much fun!” Around the table, four other heads nod in agreement.