Virtual hackathon yields real solutions

IvyHacks unites students globally to create projects for social good

IvyHacks platform screenshot

To help users feel connected to their peers during the virtual hackathon, the IvyHacks team utilized an online platform that enabled students to move around a giant, virtual campus and meet others who were nearby. (Image provided by IvyHacks)

When the COVID-19 pandemic upended plans for their sixth annual fall hackathon (a 36-hour, on-campus coding marathon), the HackHarvard team put their heads together to come up with a plan B.

“We thought, what can we do to take advantage of the virtual environment? What could we do to really elevate the hackathon experience and what risks can we take?” said Catherine Yeo, A.B. ’22, a computer science concentrator at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “We decided to build a massive virtual hackathon by collaborating with other Ivy League hackathons so we could pool our resources to reach students all over the world.”

IvyHacks was born.

The free, globally accessible online hackathon, held between Oct. 1 and Oct. 4, was the collaborative effort of more than 100 students from Harvard, Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, and Princeton University. More than 2,000 students logged on from six continents to participate in the first-of-its-kind event. Nearly half of the participants were first-time hackers.

The organizers endeavored to offer as much social interaction as possible so participants would feel connected to their peers. They utilized an online platform that enabled students to move around a giant, virtual campus and meet others who were nearby.

The four-day program included panels and fireside chats featuring leaders at a range of tech organizations, including Google, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Y Combinator startups. The organizers also gave participants two ways to present their final products—either through a pre-recorded video or in a live pitch to a panel of judges. Teams built tech solutions in four tracks, competing for prizes valued at more than $50,000.

“When we realized how big this event was going to be, we took a step back. What are we going to do that is of service to others with this large platform?” said Mohib Jafri, S.B. ’21, an electrical engineering concentrator. “Each of our different tracks – social good, healthcare, remote education and work, and connectivity – pushed students to build something with a clear goal in mind: social impact.”

SmartVote team members (clockwise from top left) Jordan Sanz, Wylie Kasai, Catherine Parnell, and Sathvika Korandla

SmartVote team members (clockwise from top left) Jordan Sanz, Wylie Kasai, Catherine Parnell, and Sathvika Korandla. (Image provided by Wylie Kasai)

The team that was named overall winner took that message to heart with SmartVote, a platform that provides personalized voting recommendations based on an individual’s needs and values.

Using an IBM API that analyzed personality insights, the team of Dartmouth College juniors Wylie Kasai, Sathvika Korandla, Catherine Parnell, and Jordan Sanz developed a web app that enables a user to input preferences, and then draws on location information to match the user with local candidates who best fit those choices.

“We thought about how a lot of people don’t think about their local elections as much as they do about the presidential election, even though local decisions can have such a big impact on people,” Korandla said. “Our hope is that people could take these matches and do more research on their own to figure out who to vote for in their local elections.”

For all four team members, who are studying computer science, this was their first hackathon.

Even though the event was virtual, they had fun coming up with ideas and collaborating on the finished product, Kasai said. The panels and workshops were a great way to pick up new skills or try something different, Sanz added.

“The fact that I was able, in such a short time, to contribute to this really cool app proved to myself that I can do this,” Parnell said. “IvyHacks was a great experience, and we had so much fun working on our project.”

In addition to getting a shot of confidence, Jafri and Yeo hope IvyHacks participants learned about the importance of collaboration and building with a focus on social impact.

IvyHacks closing ceremony

A screenshot of the IvyHacks closing ceremony. (Image provided by IvyHacks)

The event was a teachable moment for the HackHarvard team, too. They typically focus so much on logistics—the venue, how to set up the tables and chairs, ordering all the food.  With a virtual event, they shifted focus to reach and appeal to a wide range of students.

The organizers reached out to underrepresented minorities and members of the LGBTQ+ community and strove to build an inclusive event where all could feel welcome. They plan on applying the lessons they learned about diversity and engagement ito future on-campus events.

“It is important to not just take the attendees who are the most convenient, like folks from the New England area for a hackathon in Boston. Pay particular attention to the people you market the event to and admit, and then create an environment where they feel comfortable and able to express themselves,” Jafri said. “Doing this virtual hackathon was a real refresher for us in how to do that most effectively.”

Topics: Student Organizations

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