Hack Davis 2020 // Code for Social Good

By Charles LaPierre, posted on
Charles stands at a podium and speaks to an audience. Next to him is a huge projector screen. The Benetech logo, and a subtitle
Figure 1: Charles presenting to the Hack Davis crowd during the opening ceremony

We arrived at UC Davis, Saturday morning, January 18th, as students poured into the ARC pavilion. At either end of this impressive pavilion are two HUGE countdown timers reading twenty-six hours, zero minutes. In just two hours, the twenty-four hour hackathon would begin. Over 600 students registered to participate. For many of these students, this would be their first hackathon, and an introduction to the intense, fast paced collaborative atmosphere that has generated many impressive projects in the past.

Nonprofits Pitch Social Good Hackathon Projects

Benetech alongside two other nonprofits was invited to pitch potential projects, and judge the finished projects at the end. Benetech proposed an accessible sketchpad, which could be used to create shapes using only a keyboard. When integrated with Mathshare, Benetech’s inclusive online math platform, this sketchpad could help students to work through math problems online. Aging2.0 /The Roze Bear Foundation proposed an app that could match volunteers with seniors who need companionship. The Children’s Scoliosis Foundation​ proposed an app for families to track and incentivize wearing a brace, as children with scoliosis are often prescribed to wear a body brace up to 23 hours a day in order prevent their spine from curving.

Alex stands next to a benetech banner that represents the three work areas: Education, Human Rights, and Poverty. There are different hand outs spread on a table in front of him.
Figure 2: Alex standing at Benetech's booth

The Coding Begins!

  A half dozen or so students were interested in our accessible sketchpad idea and were asking us questions about the project and its use. We were happy to see that many students were excited to learn about accessibility!

 Approximately 40% of participants were women and 60% men. The event also had a large draw outside of UC Davis: 30% of students were from other schools. 24 hours flew by, and as the countdown timer ticked down to 00:00:00 the students frantically put the finishing touches on their projects. Of the 150 projects that were started 110 projects were submitted to be judged.

Judging Projects Leads to Lessons in Accessibility For Student Coders

Joining Alex and I for judging was my friend Gena Harper and her guide dog Yulie. The three of us were given over 20 projects which were marked in the category of “social good”. It was amazing to see how much these students got done in just 24 hours. We judged the projects on the following criteria: Social Good, Technical Complexity, User Interface / User Design, creativity and presentation. After the students presented their project, we asked them a number of questions specific to the project as well as if they had incorporated any accessibility into their design. Most students were not that familiar with accessibility but were eager to learn. 

Two projects related to online math stood out among the social good projects:

Check Yourself – an app that you can take a picture of your written solved math equation. This was scanned and interpreted through the MathPix tool, and then solved the mathematical equation and verified if the answer you provided was correct. Their inspiration: “We want to help students and teachers check math problems more efficiently so they can focus their efforts more on teaching and learning mathematics.”

Draw-A-Figure – This was the project we suggested and this group did a great job in making it a reality. You had the option to pick a rectangle, square, or circle and then provide information about the length of the sides or the radius of the circle and then it would draw to scale the shape on a graph. The input was quite accessible, however the team was not able to make the resulting image accessible within the 24 hour hackathon timeframe.

Composite image of Check Yourself and Draw-A-Figure hackathon projects. Check yourself is written in green cursive script. A photo of a handwritten math problem is on the top right. Code checking the math equation is on the left. Draw-a-figure: green buttons on a blue background let you choose Triangle, Quadrilateral or Conic shape, and specify the dimensions. At the bottom is a grid that depicts the shape.
Figure 3: Hackathon Projects Check Yourself (left) and Draw-A-Figure (right)

The DIAGRAM Center will be in touch with these groups to see how we can continue to develop what they have started. For a listing of all the projects and the winners you can visit the HackDavis 2020 Website. We would like to thank the student organizers and volunteers who made this well-run event happen. We felt very welcome and enjoyed judging these student tech creations.

Benetech UX Researcher, Alex Cabral also contributed to this blog.