York U students ‘hack for a better world’

Some 58 students from various Faculties gathered for two days in February to “hack for a better world” during the third annual Steacie Library Dungeon Hackfest at York University.

The 30-hour hacking marathon is organized by the York University Libraries and Launch YU, York’s entrepreneurship program.

The Hobbiests Team in action
The Hobbiests team in action

This year’s Hackfest began early on the morning of Thursday, Feb. 18, with an initial presentation of 14 ideas focused on this year’s theme, Hacking for a Better World. Participants pitched their visions and detailed how their ideas would make the world a better place. After some lively discussion, nine multidisciplinary teams emerged. Graduate and undergraduate students from business, environmental studies, computer engineering, history and political science brought their varying skill sets to the table to translate each idea into a product complete with a supporting business model.

The teams then began hacking in earnest, with experts from the University and its local communities present to mentor the groups on the technical and business aspects of their projects.

Peer Parking team gets advice from mentor Justin Podur, associate professor, Faculty of Environmental Studies
Peer Parking team gets advice from mentor Justin Podur, associate professor, Faculty of Environmental Studies

Lightning talks were given by local entrepreneur Lalit Guglani on how to create a startup. Professor Charlene Zeitsma, director of Entrepreneurial Studies and the Ann Brown Chair of Organization Studies from the Schulich School of Business, spoke about social entrepreneurship. Organizers, along with partners from University Information Technology and the Lassonde School of Engineering made sure that participants had access to a rich array of resources, including a selection of private and public databases, various online tools and resources from the York University Libraries.

The Peer Parking team present their hack for a better world
The Peer Parking team present their hack for a better world

“I have learned more in these two days than what I might learn during an entire semester,” says one of the undergraduate students, who emphasized how the event taught him the practical use of the skills learned as part of his studies. In addition, students enrolled in Lassonde’s EECS 1001 were able to use participation in Hackfest as part of their course requirement. “EECS 1001 serves to expose students to the breadth of computer science,” says Professor Rick Wildes, chair of Lassonde’s Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science. “Involvement the Hackfest provides a hands-on complement to lecture-based introduction of topics.”

The Steacie Library Dungeon Hackfest culminated in team presentations on Friday, Feb. 19.

Presenter Carly Naismith, York PhD candidate in history, felt that there is a need for more accountability and improved accessibility to charities around the world. Naismith and her teammates from Lassonde created Comparity, a platform to compare different charity organizations and provide more transparency for donors, volunteers and policymakers. “The success of this model means that we have a more aware public who knows how to make a more efficient and effective contribution,” says Naismith.

Nikita Iliushkin, an undergraduate student at the Schulich School of Business, sought to connect drivers with homeowners willing to rent out their driveway spaces to utilize the latent capacity of parking spaces in a densely populated neighbourhood. The team presented a live demonstration of Peer Parking, which identified various parking spots around the Keele campus.

Also presented were:

  • CheckIt, which searches for university courses by date and time;
  • Relnuz, an edited website for citizen journalists;
  • Fit Foodie, which calculates nutritional requirements for the day and recommends appropriate restaurants;
  • Kaya, a productivity tool to lock a device screen to certain notifications while studying;
  • AZIO, a crowd-sourced community directory;
  • Hobbiests, a social media site to connect people with similar hobbies; and
  • Simple Weather, which helps users with clothing choices for different types of weather.

Videos for each are posted on the Hackfest website: hackfest.library.yorku.ca.

“This is my first hackathon and I’ve been really impressed by what other teams have been able to do,” says Jasdeep Singh from Lassonde. “It’s an eye-opener to a different world for me.”