College students show off power, creativity of software systems at Hopkins hackathon

A software program that uses the concept of a "memory palace" was the big winner at a Johns Hopkins hackathon.

Teams of college students from across the country gathered at the Johns Hopkins University's biannual HopHacks event Sunday to show off.

They built software to help people seek out money lenders from remote parts of the world, even if they can't read or write. An app that uses technology known as augmented reality to help the elderly fix their printers or log into their Facebook accounts. A program that maps out President Donald Trump's personal connections through an analysis of news articles.

All in less than two days.

It was a "hackathon," in which engineers compete to build the most inventive and useful software applications over a sleep-deprived, Red Bull-fueled weekend. At the eighth iteration of HopHacks, sponsorships from companies like Capital One and Google gave the students access to their own complex programs and heavy-duty, lightning-speed computing power.

It's a way for students who are relatively new to the field to test their skills and creativity using tools at the cutting edge of the industry they hope to join — and a chance for employers to start grooming them for their workforces.

"This can incubate new hackers or new engineers," said Christian Reotutar, a senior at Hopkins who is one of the event's lead organizers.

The winning team, taking home a $1,024 prize, was a group of four freshmen from the University of Maryland who used virtual reality and speech recognition software to create Speech Portal. The program uses the concept of a "memory palace" to help users learn material by tying it to physical places they know.

HopHacks began Friday night with a keynote speech from Hopkins alumnus Eric Conn, CEO of Leverege, a Baltimore startup that helps companies manage large fleets of internet-connected devices and sensors.

Then the hacking began (with periodic interruptions for lessons in Google and Capital One software systems, and for midnight pizza.)

Paul Hudgins came from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond with an idea sparked during his time as a Marine deployed in Afghanistan.

He met a man in a remote part of the country who needed a new battery for an irrigation pump, but had no way to borrow money for it, or to communicate with potential lenders.

He and his classmates developed an app to help.

"What will you purchase with your loan?" asked the robotic voice coming from a smartphone running their app. It was designed to use Google voice-to-text software so that it can be used even by those who can't read or write.

"In a programming class, you wouldn't use this technology," classmate Mit Amin said.

Shannon Foster, a Windsor Mill resident and University of Maryland student, had an idea for an app that uses augmented reality to help senior citizens troubleshoot problems with their computers, tablets or even Amazon Fire TV Stick streaming devices.

Pointing a device's camera at another screen, the user could make arrows appear, or otherwise highlight and explain how to fix a technological problem.

"My grandmother, she has computer issues every day," Foster said. "It can potentially scale to help people with more than just technology."

Judging the competition was a group of Baltimore technology entrepreneurs and Hopkins professors.

Yair Flicker, CEO of the local software firm SmartLogic and startup TeamPassword, said he was impressed with the students' use of all the technology and computing power at their disposal.

Hackathons were once more of an exercise in more straightforward coding skill, he said, but the complexity and speed of software systems and massive databases in the cloud and accessible to anyone with an internet connection has made the events more exciting.

"It's more so how a team can piece together different libraries to do something interesting, as opposed to writing something from scratch," he said. "It's kind of neat — computer science and programming have been out for so long, you don't have to reinvent the wheel."

The students, many of whom go on to work for hackathon sponsors or launch their own startups, said that makes for valuable experience.

"I do hackathons all the time," Foster said. "I try not to do them every weekend, because I like sleep."

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