Last month at HackSC, a large-scale hackathon held at USC, the winner of the “Best Mobile or Web App” went to Align. Created by a team of students from the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS), the app helps people create interest-driven support groups.
“The inspiration for the app came from a brief talk given by one of the presenters at the opening ceremony,” says Taneisha Arora, a third-year student studying computer software engineering and data science.
“She brought to our attention a very prevalent problem within the multiple sclerosis community: although over 4 million people share the disease worldwide, it is difficult to find people with MS experiencing the same symptoms and therefore experiences,” explains Theja Krishna, a third-year computer science student.
Daniel Davies, a computer science master’s student from the University of Bristol (in the U.K.) studying abroad this year, says the team decided to build on the idea of helping people with MS connect with others experiencing similar symptoms, but they expanded it. “Why just focus on people with MS, when there are so many isolating conditions out there, like cancers, depression, physical disabilities, etc.?” Furthermore, Davies says that they also wanted to match people by interests, “so that people suffering with conditions have more to talk about than just their symptoms.”
Arora, Krishna and Davies hosted the Align app on Amazon Web Services (AWS) and wrote it in Cloud9, Amazon’s new integrated development environment. They included Facebook login support, buckets (cloud storage containers) and text matching. Align first prompts the user for symptoms and filters the results accordingly, displaying other people with the same symptoms. “Then, we took it a step further,” says Krishna. “We extracted everyone’s Facebook likes and categorized them into broader categories, matching them with the user and ranking them accordingly.” She adds that the goal was “to give people experiencing illnesses the tools they need to create their own support groups based on more than just similar symptoms.”
All three students were shocked to hear that they had won first place. “We did not see it coming,” says Arora, who will be interning at Google this summer.
“Frankly, I wasn’t expecting a win,” says Krishna. “However, we ended up using several of the tools offered by AWS to build our app in a pretty innovative way.”
Both Krishna and Davies have attended many hackathons, but this was barely Arora’s second hackathon. Her first was at HackUCI in February, but because her teammate was a mentor, they couldn’t present their app at the end. “Watching the other teams that were actually presenting grind relentlessly to create an MVP version of their idea in under 36 hours was absolutely inspiring!” she says. “Going to HackSC was a mix of me wanting to experience the crazy pressure of actually participating in a hackathon, getting an opportunity to bring some of the ideas I had been thinking about to life, and to play with and learn about new tech!”
Arora credits her ICS education for preparing her for the experience. “The harder courses, which require you to go from zero to ‘relative pro’ in a few weeks… most definitely helped me master the art of getting work done under extreme pressure scenarios, all while maintaining a calm composure.”
All three students seemed to have mastered the art of innovating under pressure and were each rewarded with an Echo Spot for their first-place finish.
– Shani Murray