This student-organized competition is giving homeless people help they can hold in their hands.
Tad Malone ’17 and Ed Cohen
13 Mar 2016
You may not know it, but about half of the homeless people in the San Francisco Bay Area have cell phones. They use them, in part, to apply for jobs or services, or to reserve a bed in a shelter. For the past three years the University has hosted a student competition to develop apps geared to homeless people’s phones and needs.
The 24-hour coding marathon, originally called Hack for the Homeless, attracts scores of participants, mostly from SCU but with some from other Northern California schools. It has also garnered attention from The New York Times, Reuters, Yahoo! Finance, and the Voice of America, in addition to local media.
In 2015, the $1,000 first-place prize went to three SCU students—Nathan Kerr ’18, Alex Seto ’18, and Kelly Wesley ’18—for OpenDoor, a location-based community app that identifies nearby services. Other projects included an app for tracking a lost cellphone without an email address and computer, and one for broadcasting severe weather warnings and shelter openings. An app called Love, Eat, Thrive was designed to connect homeless people with donors who can provide food, shelter, and other necessaries.
The code produced at the hackathon is essentially a prototype. Participants in the SCU event donate their code to the University. After further refinement by students, the code is made available to any nonprofit interested in deploying it. One app from 2015, called Simply, is about to be added to phones distributed to area homeless people. The app boosts the display size of the most important buttons on a smartphone screen.
How do homeless people get smartphones? One way has been through the Community Technology Alliance, a nonprofit in San Jose that uses technology to help address poverty and homelessness. Hack for the Homeless worked with the alliance’s program that has provided low-income people with a smartphone, a tailored data plan, and specialized customer support.
The 2016 hackathon, held Feb. 27–28, was rebranded Hack for Humanity. It focused on developing apps to help Catholic Charities improve its programs and services for very-low-income people, and also educational apps for a portable computer and projector box called Looma. The device is designed for use in schools in developing nations.
First prize went to BetterMe, an app designed to help people with addictions set goals on their way to sobriety. Creators Vishanth Iyer ’18, Gurneev Sareen ’18, and Nathan Kerr ’18 said it also gives users access to resources and a social media platform where they can talk to people who are in a similar situation.
The hackathons have been organized entirely by an SCU student group, the Association for Computing Machinery. Former ACM President Vincente Ciancio ’16, a computer science and engineering major, organized the first two. This year, President Robbie Aldrich ’16, a computer science major, was in charge.
This year’s hackathon was sponsored by the ACM, the School of Engineering and its Frugal Innovation Hub, and the consulting firm Accenture.