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Hackathon: Ready, set, code

Feb. 16 marks the final day of NYU Abu Dhabi’s third annual Hackathon for Social Good in the Arab World. The three-day conference held at the Downtown ...

Feb 15, 2014

via Facebook
Feb. 16 marks the final day of NYU Abu Dhabi’s third annual Hackathon for Social Good in the Arab World. The three-day conference held at the Downtown Campus’ Multipurpose Room aims to bring together computer science students, technology professionals and venture capitalists both from within the country and from abroad to promote a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation in the Arab world.
Small groups of students, under the guidance of academics, software developers and representatives from regional and international corporations, will create a mobile or web application relevant to diverse fields such as health, education, film, music, business and science, all to foster social good in the Arab world. This year, 28 students from NYUAD are participating alongside students from colleges based in 17 other countries including Iraq, the United Kingdom and the United States.
On Feb. 14, students were greeted with an orientation and welcome. Later that evening, individuals pitched their ideas and consequently formed teams. The remaining time was dedicated to developing their applications before the public symposium. Projects are to be evaluated by a panel of judges from nine countries.
The Hackathon’s website says that by the weekend’s conclusion, participants will have experienced “the full cycle of creating a tech startup.”
Angela Zhang, a junior studying Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is developing the itinerary generator called “Localli” with five other students. Based on your preferences, Localli will automatically formulate an itinerary that minimizes travel time and maximizes overall enjoyment.
“The social good component comes in when we try to promote local businesses and local charity events,” Zhang said.
She believes that computer science can aid in tackling social issues and lauds its dynamism.
“Computer science is just another engineering field in that you’re physically creating for people. But what makes computer science better than conventional engineering is the fact that you can build a product and iterate on that product extremely fast,” Zhang said.
Under the mentorship of Zahara Ashjtorab from the University of Maryland and Anriudh Koul from Microsoft, another group of students, including Siddha Ganju from the National Institute of Technology in India and Amna Mangoosh from the UAE Higher Colleges of Technology, were inspired by the plight of Syrian refugees. Their application uses fuzzy matching — a mathematical process that compares data sets — to connect parents with their estranged children in orphanages and refugee camps. The application completes an image comparison, with the first image supplied by the parents and the second by the orphanages or refugee camps. The application is fuzzy because there is no exact answer: It simply provides a possible prediction value by supplementing the image comparison with metadata — eye color, hair color, name, among other information. With data, there may be errors in the system, so fuzzy plays a part in trying to make the closest match possible.
Michael Schidlowsky, a software engineer at Google and professor of Computer Science at NYU New York, is the mentor of a team developing an application to help people understand expressions that are unique to various dialects of Arabic.
“It’s sort of in the spirit of an urban dictionary app,” he said.
Sana Odeh, Affiliated Faculty of Computer Science at NYUAD, founded the Hackathon in 2011.
“The whole idea behind the hackathon is to have international students regional students from the Arab world come together, learn from each other, and build something for the social good in the Arab World,” said Odeh, adding, “The final product far exceeds our expectations … in every hackathon usually 1-2% of applications finish, but in our hackathon there is always [a] 100% [completion rate].”
Odeh hopes this hackathon will create opportunities for international collaboration, startups and academic research in the future.
“I could easily see people collaborating on projects together, either taking the projects they worked on here or working together on new things,” Schidlowsky said.
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