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Science & Technology

Hacking For Good: Philly Codefest Unites Techies to Compete With Social Good Projects

April 19, 2019

Since 2013, Drexel University’s College of Computing & Informatics has brought students and local professionals from diverse backgrounds together for a premiere hackathon focused on solving real-world problems.

Once a year, students from across Drexel University and professionals from around the city hole up in the Daskalakis Athletic Center for the weekend. They’re tired, over caffeinated, and it’s impossible to track the passage of time. They’re competing with a team, but everyone here is also working together toward a common goal: discovering new ways by which technology can accomplish social good.

This is how past participants in Philly Codefest describe the annual event hosted by the College of Computing & Informatics (CCI). Philly Codefest is a free software and hardware hackathon that encourages techies from all experience levels and backgrounds to work together and develop innovative solutions to help solve real world challenges.

Participants in the annual Codefest are tired, over caffeinated, and it’s impossible to track the passage of time. They’re competing with a team, but everyone here is also working together toward a common goal: discovering new ways by which technology can accomplish social good.The hackathon was launched in 2013 as a health IT event, and has since broadened its focus to real-world, scalable solutions to address a variety of problems affecting the in Greater Philadelphia region.

“As a College, we are dedicated to leveraging tech for social good,” said Kerry Boland, assistant director of creative content and publications for CCI, who has served on the planning committee since Codefest’s beginnings. “As a hackathon we’ve encouraged participants to design solutions that could be implemented locally but also scaled up nationally. Philly Codefest identifies key challenges in our city and offers students and professionals a way to develop tools to help solve them.”

Bill Mongan, PhD, a teaching professor and associate department head of undergraduate affairs in CCI’s Department of Computer Science, has been a Codefest judge since its inception. Since then, he has seen a number of projects come out of the event — everything from an AI system to help minimize emergency response time to an app that crowdsourced building safety and evacuation.

Bill Mongan, PhD, a teaching professor and associate department head of undergraduate affairs in CCI’s Department of Computer Science, has been a Codefest judge since its inception. Mongan said that each year, judges’ criteria includes both the technical success of the project and how usable, deployable and scalable it is. To accomplish this, it’s usually important that Codefest teams are comprised of more than just software developers.

“Certainly, many projects need someone who can be a hardware hacker or a software developer, but it’s really important to have folks who understand, for example, data science or information systems or business perspective, how to engage with stakeholders, how to employ a system, how to market and scale and disseminate systems,” Mongan said. “… These projects are not successful without all of those skill sets in the same room.”

That’s why Philly Codefest is open to students from across the University and the nation, teams from a variety of backgrounds, and even individuals who join teams upon arrival at the hackathon. When participating in last year’s Philly Codefest, Drexel student Charlie Chiccarine and his Team Comfy came together just a week before the event around his idea to create an app that would provide information for people with mental and physical disabilities to determine whether a restaurant’s environment will be suitable to their special needs. Although they were all CCI students, the members of Team Comfy were also all first-year students for the last hackathon, some of whom had very little experience in coding.

Team Comfy came together just a week before the event around his idea to create an app that would provide information for people with mental and physical disabilities to determine whether a restaurant’s environment will be suitable to their special needs.“We didn’t really know how to build something in such a short period of time, so it was a really cool experience,” said Palash Pandey, a now second-year data science student from Team Comfy. “It was fun because we were working on something that we were all really passionate about, so that was what kept us motivated.”

The impassioned app idea came to Chiccarine, a now second-year computer science student, after he and a friend, both identifying as neurodivergent individuals, had an unpleasant experience while catching up at a restaurant together.

“We made the reservations and when we got there it was very dark, it was very loud and just an overwhelming environment,” he said. “We kind of sat there like, ‘Wow, I wish we had known about this beforehand.’ And it was like, ‘Oh, we could make an app for that.’”

Despite a well-defined idea going into last year’s Codefest, Team Comfy certainly didn’t go in with any expectations. So they were surprised when their Comfy app earned the Google Best User Interface Prize as the most well-designed, intuitive and unique app in the competition to focus on the user experience.

“We didn’t go in thinking, ‘We’re going to make the best app. We are going to win all these fancy prizes,’” Chiccarine said. “We kind of just went in thinking, ‘Let’s go in for that hackathon experience, sitting in a room for 48 hours, losing track of time, busting your brain.’”

Winning the prize afforded Team Comfy with a sponsored trip to a résumé workshop at Google’s headquarters in New York, as well as notoriety among the many other corporate Philly Codefest sponsors for future co-ops and jobs. After being remembered from Codefest, Chiccarine is now currently doing a co-op with last year’s Codefest corporate partner, BrickSimple.

But the benefits of Codefest reach well beyond the resume boost. Pandey said it’s a good time to reflect on issues in the local community and how to solve them — something most people don’t have time to think about or work on.

“Just going to Codefest and having that 48-hour block of time to work on something is really a good opportunity for you to try to solve a really important problem,” he said.

The theme of this year’s Philly Codefest is “economic inequality,” and participants are called to address this head-on with projects centering around challenges like food insecurity, financial literacy and employment equity. Pandey said that Team Comfy is thinking about making a smart trash can which would incentivize homeless or impoverished people to collect trash in exchange for food vouchers or money.

It’s good, Pandey added, that Drexel organizes events focused on correcting these issues.

“Drexel is situated in one of the most impoverished [cities in the country], so it is kind of a social responsibility and it’s really inspiring that Drexel is living up to that responsibility and doing something,” he said. “They’re not just putting out statements or proposing plans, they’re proactively trying to find solutions to the problems that exist in their area.”

Chiccarine said it also helps that this premiere hackathon is sponsored by Drexel, making it less intimidating and more inviting to attend and participate.

Codefest was launched in 2013 as a health IT event, and the hackathon has since broadened its focus to real-world, scalable solutions to address a variety of problems affecting the in Greater Philadelphia region."I was more comfortable going to Drexel’s hackathon just because it was right on campus and it was hosted by people I knew,” he said. “You saw professors there, your classmates there. … It felt a little bit more personal.”

Mongan said that Codefest is truly a “microcosm of the Drexel universe” because of the way it melds technology, science and art in order to make an impact in the community that surrounds it. He added that for any students excited by technology — no matter what academic background — you should absolutely come to Philly Codefest.

“This is really for everyone. It’s not just a tech event,” he said. “Regardless of your background, you’ll find that you have a seat at that table because these are real community problems and they really need everyone and every skillset and every background to come together and think about how to attack these issues.”

To register for Philly Codefest, taking place May 4–5, click here. This year’s event is presented by Comcast NBCUniversal, and additional sponsors include American Water, Linode, Indeed, Vanguard, Google, HomeNet Automotive and the Charles D. Close School of Entrepreneurship.