Computer science students design apps to tackle potholes, climate change, human trafficking at PSU Hackathon
Author: By Katy Swordfisk, PSU Media & PR
Posted: April 18, 2019

Six teams of Portland State University computer science students huddled around their laptops on a rainy Saturday afternoon at Vacasa’s downtown office. Fueled by pizza and La Croix, these 25 students were plugging away at the same task: design a solution to an important issue facing Portland. 

They were participants in the second annual PSU Hackathon, hosted by We in Computer Science (WiCS), a PSU student group focused on diversity and inclusion in computer science.

This year, the theme was Brilliant City, which was inspired by the Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science’s (MCECS) strategic vision. The strategic vision states cities need to think beyond just being “smart,” and work toward brilliance through technological integration in education, health and equity. 

The MCECS students’ proposals largely focused on the environment and different ways to reduce or monitor personal carbon footprints. Other ideas included a platform to search for free food on campus or become more informed about human trafficking.

The winning team of Saturday’s Brilliant City Hackathon developed an app called Good Neighbor. The app would allow users to document issues facing the city (think potholes, graffiti and garbage) and connect those problems with users willing to fix it.

Luke Ding, who’s pursuing a master’s in computer science at PSU, said the winning team was inspired by potholes and the city of Portland’s PDX Reporter app, which allows residents to document and report problems they notice. The city’s app allows residents to report issues, but doesn’t provide a platform for those interested in fixing the problem.

As the team — which included PSU computer science students Gabe Golden, Jesse Zhu, Sam Parker (Honors College) and Jake Klusnick (Honors College) — worked on their app, they also realized it could incentivize the community to solve problems together rather than just seeking an outlet to complain.

Kusnick said he appreciated that the Hackathon gave them a chance to use their skills in computer science to make a societal change, rather than just focusing on developing lucrative business ventures.

Parker added that he learned more in the one-day event than in the first month of school.

“It pushes you out of your comfort zone and you have to adapt,” Parker said.

The Hackathon itself was a low-pressure iteration of its larger-scale namesake. The event was designed to offered students a chance to get a feel for hackathons without the traditional pressure or cliques often found at larger events.

“The goal of this hackathon isn’t necessarily to build world-class products,” said Karis Sponsler, a PSU computer science student who co-founded WiCS. “What we try to do with this event is bring in people that have either never been to one or feel not super comfortable, and give them a really slow, nice introduction.”

PSU students also benefited from the assistance provided by coaches with real-world experience, which isn’t a typical offering at a hackathon, Sponsler said.

“We really want to make sure everyone has a great experience and learn something new,” Sponsler said. “If you’ve learned something then you’ve done the right thing.”

Photo caption:
Top: Twenty-five Portland State University students participated in the second annual Hackathon hosted by student group We in Computer Science. This year's theme was Brilliant City.

Bottom: PSU computer science students Gabe Golden, Jesse Zhu, Sam Parker, Luke Ding and Jake Klusnick present their app Good Neighbor during the Brilliant City Hackathon in April.