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How programmers innovated in a COVID-19 hackathon season

From preserving African culture to helping freelancers receive fair pay
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The Varsity spoke with the winners of the NSBEHacks UofT and UofTHacks VIII hackathons. STEVE LI/THE VARSITY
The Varsity spoke with the winners of the NSBEHacks UofT and UofTHacks VIII hackathons. STEVE LI/THE VARSITY

Can you develop a software application to help freelancers receive fair pay, preserve the cultural transmission of Africa cultures, and help people safely socialize during COVID-19? Hackathon participants across Canada — including a score of University of Toronto students — accepted the challenge to create these solutions in a physically distant world overa tight timeline of just a few days.

Before the pandemic, most hackathons were overnight, in-person events where programmers developed software solutions to solve societal problems. Now, hackathons based in Toronto have been run online to respect physical distancing measures.

Award-winning programmers across U of T-affiliated hackathons spoke with The Varsity about their successes in finding ‘hacks’ to problems during the pandemic. These developers participated in NSBEHacks UofT 2021, a U of T student-facilitated hackathon affiliated with the National Society of Black Engineers’ (NSBE) U of T chapter that ran from February 6–7, and UofTHacks VIII, one of the largest hackathons at U of T, which ran from February 19–21.

NSBEHacks: “Reigniting African culture” with Bonfire 

Bonfire, which helps preserve African cultural traditions over time, was an overall winner at NSBEHacks UofT 2021.

Bonfire co-developer Rishabh Saini — a second-year computer engineering student at U of T — explained in a video interview with The Varsity that the team’s goal was to create “a platform where people could sustain the Black Indigenous culture” that they belong to, even after emigrating from their home country.

He continued to explain that cultural knowledge is often “never written down” and disappears over generations. As a solution, the team decided to develop a “social media platform” that could be used by people from younger generations to learn cultural traditions from past generations. Saini also described the capabilities of the platform as a place to exchange skills between these community members across borders.

Explaining how the team differentiated itself from competitors, Saini noted that the team — which included co-developers Keyon Jerome, Abubakar Bello, and Chinemerem Chigbo — “[was] able to bring a lot of different technologies and… combine them in a very seamless fashion,” including the Google Maps Platform API, with a “minimalist design” that was easy for users to interact with. 

Reflecting on NSBEHacks 2021 as a whole, Saini said: “I would say this was by far one of the best hackathons I’ve attended” due to the virtual conferencing platform of Gather Town. He also praised the availability of mentors at the event who could “help you if you were stuck,” along with the opportunities to speak with company representatives to find opportunities for future internships and work.

NSBEHacks: improving food security

FoodForAll — a mobile app that aims to reduce food waste — was also an overall winner at NSBEHacks UofT 2021, and was, additionally, the recipient of the “Google Challenge: Best Use of Google Cloud” award.

“FoodForAll connects people facing food insecurity with good food that would have been wasted otherwise,” wrote Darren Butler, a computer science undergraduate student at Philander Smith College in Arkansas, in an email to The Varsity. “While restaurants may try to produce the exact amount of food they would sell every day, it’s near impossible to be totally accurate 100% of the time.”

Butler explained that the team was inspired by a video on Twitter that appears to show restaurant workers filling a garbage can with uneaten donuts at the end of a workday. He continued: “There’s gonna be a surplus, so rather than just throw away the surplus that can’t be profited from, it makes more sense to give it away and support the community.”

Asked how the team differentiated itself, Butler wrote that the team — which also included Andrew Chen, Chetachi Ugwu-Ojobe, and Munachi Ernest-Eze — “had a diverse skillset,” including skills in developing and presenting the program.

UofTHacks VIII: helping design freelancers charge fair rates 

Bossify — a mobile app for helping freelancers identify fair rates of pay — won first place at UofTHacks VIII and aims to help freelancers with “the business aspect of freelancing,” explained Bossify co-developer Lori Chan, a first-year master of information student concentrating in user experience design at U of T.

“Many people (me included) don’t fully consider… things like what [percentage of] profit do I want to make?” Chan wrote. She explained that freelancers can also feel uncertainty about overcharging or undercharging their clients.

On the winning app’s inspiration, co-developer Janice Chen — also a first-year master of information student at U of T concentrating on user experience design — wrote: “Our inspiration came from Chris Do, the CEO and founder of ‘The Futur’… an online education platform for the creative community.” Chen explained how Do’s videos — including those on pricing design work and cost estimation — focused “on how creative work is undervalued and underpaid,” and suggest solutions for designers to charge fairly.

“Designers (and as a designer myself) are often dreamers and perfectionists who live in this ideal utopia world,” wrote Chen. “We don’t like to talk about money, but it is important to learn that business aspect to justify and allow the value of design to shine.”

On the client side, Chen explained that Bossify provides “a portal for the [designer] clients” that is pleasant to use, with a feature “to review/rate the freelancer based on their work.” Ratings are one of the factors “considered by the algorithm when it calculates the design fee for the freelancer.” 

On the freelancer’s side, Chan explained that “Bossify helps to calculate this fair pay and encourages freelancers that their work is valuable.” She continued by noting that “Freelancers simply have to input a couple factors and the algorithm will generate everything else.”

“The intention behind this review system is to foster a positive feedback loop to ensure quality work for clients — but of course, a more rigid feedback system needs to be explored and defined to ensure fair use of the system,” reflected Chen.

For both Chan and Chen, this was their first virtual hackathon. “The only thing, if any, that we struggled (or panicked) a little [with] was how notifications/announcements were all delivered via Discord. We figured [out] that we were listed as finalists at the very last minute and very much panicked,” recalled Chen. 

UofTHacks: helping students, employees collaborate 

Rewind — a software tool that helps users by tracking changes across whiteboard discussions — won fourth place overall and the “Major League Hacking – Best Use of Google Cloud” award at UofTHacks VIII. The program aims to improve discussions between students about problems solved with a whiteboard.

“The idea for Rewind basically came from brainstorming about painpoints about pandemic life. During virtual meetings I’ve constantly found myself looking for a way to draw exactly what I’m thinking to better share my ideas,” wrote Rewind co-developer and third-year engineering science student Benjamin Cheng to The Varsity. 

Rewind co-developer Jim Gao, a third-year computer science specialist at U of T, explained to The Varsity that it is easy for students and employees in meetings to lose track of previous discussions when collaborating on a virtual whiteboard while physically distanced. 

“Rewind allows students and employees to ‘go back in time’ and locate key parts of the meeting based on the topic discussed (which is automatically summarized by Rewind),” he wrote. On the win, he wrote that he believes the team differentiated itself by creating “a complete working solution that could be deployed and implemented in practice.”

Reflecting on his experience with the virtualized hackathon, Gao opined that the lack of an in-person element lessened the opportunity to get to know other hackers. However, the virtualization did result in higher productivity for his team, which included teammates Jason Liu and Kevin Wen. “Attending a hackathon virtually allows us to focus more closely on our project and hence we were able to take on larger workloads,” Gao wrote.

UofTHacks: helping ease a lack of socialization 

Friendle — a mobile app designed to help people make friends with similar interests — won second place at UofTHacks VIII, along with the “Telus – Leverage technology to manage/improve any mental health issue” award.

Reflecting on Friendle’s inspiration, the app’s co-developer Andrew Choi, a second-year master’s student in computer science at U of T, wrote to The Varsity: “We thought that existing matching apps had a high rate of ‘ghosting.’ So we developed Friendle for users to share personalized activities together without having to exchange awkward greetings.”

Rachel Pun, a third-year design student in the York University and Sheridan College joint program, reflected on the team’s belief of their solution’s feasibility. She wrote to The Varsity that the team’s direction was “to create a solution that connects people all around the world based on compatibility, and subsequently generate a hangout session for them.”

On the team’s win, Jacob Nishimura, Friendle co-developer and a first-year electrical and computer engineering master’s student at the University of Iowa, wrote to The Varsity that he believed one of their strengths was the team’s balance of members between the front end and back end of software development. “In time-constrained hackathons, it can be tough to tie together frontends and backends in time.”

Nishimura added: “As an American, it was fun to interact with and learn about other participants and the Canadian sponsors. In-person hackathons usually don’t see the same amount of international participation.”

Disclosure: Adam A. Lam served as The Varsity’s Volume 140 Science Editor. Munachi Ernest-Eze currently serves as The Varsity’s Front End Web Developer.