Students hack their way to glory in 48-hour appathon

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From left to right: MP Tony Clement, Jasneet Sabharwal, Bradley Ellert, Jonathan Bhaskar, and Maryam Siahbani. - SFU University Communications
From left to right: MP Tony Clement, Jasneet Sabharwal, Bradley Ellert, Jonathan Bhaskar, and Maryam Siahbani. - SFU University Communications
From left to right: MP Tony Clement, Jasneet Sabharwal, Bradley Ellert, Jonathan Bhaskar, and Maryam Siahbani. – SFU University Communications

Despite starting the competition three hours late, a team of four SFU computing science graduate students took home the $5,000 student prize at the Canadian Open Data Experience (CODE) 2015, a 48-hour hackathon.

In the hackathon, which opened February 20, each team had 48 hours to comb through open data made available by the Government of Canada and build a functioning app using the data. Ultimately, teams were judged in “five areas of competency: user experience, use of open data, innovation, potential, and functionality.”

The teams had three categories on which to focus their app: youth employment, business opportunities, and healthy living. The “SFU Data Crunchers” team of four, consisting of three members specializing in natural language processing — Bradley Ellert, Jasneet Sabharwal, and Maryam Siahbani — and one member in the professional master’s program in big data — Jonathan Bhaskar — decided to focus on youth.

Bhaskar had only found out about the hackathon in an email from a TA a few hours before. With the contest starting at 6 p.m. on February 20, the team thought they were starting just on time.

However, while reading the rules, they noticed that the time was in Eastern Standard Time, as the competition was based in Toronto, and had instead started three hours behind.

The team spent the first day sifting through the approximately 200,000 data sets and trying to come up with a way to put them all together. This was a decided disadvantage, as the other teams who had learned about the hackathon earlier were able to look at the data sets before the 48-hour window.

“We [later] learned that some of the other teams had been brainstorming in the week leading up to the competition,” Ellert said. “Our first day was spent planning. There were times we didn’t think we’d even be able to come up with a concrete idea in time.”

However, before long they had an idea: an app that helps students find out the cost of a post-secondary education, one which not only factors in tuition fees but also compares the cost of renting or university housing.

“After a lot of going in circles, we kept coming back to the same idea that higher education is the solution to solving high youth unemployment rates,” Ellert noted.

They found data that showed the average rent in all the cities across Canada, along with the price of university housing. As well, they used the SFU Library to find the data set for tuition fees all across Canada, as it was not available in the data sets released by the Canadian government.

The final product was “High School Down, Where Next?” which allows the user to compare the tuition fees of universities all across Canada, right next to the average price of living near the university.

“This is a very useful tool for students. Most of the competitors that are on the market don’t allow you to look at all the data at the same time, and while doing your research it can become a big information overload,” said Sabharwal. “You don’t even have to know where you want to start searching.”

The team made the top 15 out of 125 submissions and 1,300 participants, and flew to Toronto on March 16 to pitch their app in person. The judges saw the potential in the app, and awarded the team the student prize.

For now, the app is done — Bhaskar and Sabharwal noted that the members of the team are busy with their academic work. However, Sabharwal said that the team has some interest in continuing the project.