Brain Power: Pitt hosts all-female computer programming competition

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Brain Power: Pitt hosts all-female computer programming competition

By Meagan Hart / Staff Writer

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Free from cat calls, sexism or “are you sure you can handle that?”s, Pitt gave female students a safe place to think this weekend, hosting its first all-female computer programming hackathon.

Pitt’s Department of Computer Sciences hosted “She Innovates,” a hackathon, or an event where students meet to collaborate on and then pitch computer programming ideas, over the weekend. “She Innovates” took place from Jan. 31 through Feb. 1 on the fifth floor of Sennott Square. Thirty-seven students worked on ideas for a mobile app or website that the students  thought would be commercially successful. Eight students presented individual ideas at the start of the hackathon, and the remaining 29 students joined in after to further develop the ideas, forming eight teams.  At the end of the weekend, the judges awarded first, second and third place positions.

Neha Abraham, event organizer and the President of Women in Computer Science, said it was important that the competition was for women only.

Abraham said computer science has a terrible ratio of male to female representation.

According to the National Science Foundation, American Bar Association and the American Association of Medical Colleges, as of last year, only 15 to 20 percent of all computer science majors were women.

According to Abraham, hackathons also tend to be male-dominated. 

“Women are often harassed and are expected only to make things “look pretty.” We decided to have a women’s hackathon to give females the chance to share their ideas in a comfortable environment,” Abraham, a junior majoring in computer science, said. 

The participants had about 36 hours, starting Friday night and ending Sunday morning, to research their ideas and propose them to three judges in five-minute-long presentations. During the competition, the groups could either stay at Sennott Square to develop their ideas or leave and work at another location. 

The judges scored the presentations based on five main criteria: originality of the idea, usefulness, technical difficulty of the project, polish and market and business potential should the idea actually be implemented.

The judges included Lu Haung, a software engineer at Pittsburgh’s Google branch, Deepal Dhariwal, a software engineer at NetApp and Benjamin Schmidt, chief technology officer at kWantera. After each presentation, the judges had five minutes to ask questions and make comments. 

First place went to “The Defenders,” which is a children’s game that, unlike many other games, doesn’t enforce male and female stereotypes. Instead, this app assigns players either a prince or a princess, and they must save another character. The characters change each time the kids play the game, which means kids will play frequently play with characters of either gender. The game takes place in the Cathedral of Learning and there are 42 levels for the 42 floors. At the end, the character must stand up to a bully to win the game. 

“PittFitt,” an app that encourages students to work out by matching workout partners that have similar exercise preferences, won second place. App users enter their schedule, fitness level and gender in order to match up with their workout partners.

The third place prize went to “Park@Pitt,” an app that would help students know where available parking spots are open by listing parking garage locations along with prices and hours.

The first, second and third place winners’ prizes included $500 cash that the team can spend on whatever they want, computer science industry gifts and an hour-long mentoring session coordintated by the Innovation Institute. 

Julie McConnell, a junior majoring in engineering, participated in the hackathon and came up with the idea of an app called “Prowl.” The app is meant to spread awareness about the dangers of sexual assault or harassment. In their presentation, she explained that “Prowl” includes a map where victims can click on the spot where they were assaulted so other people with the app know to avoid the area. The app also includes an emergency call button.

“The idea came from [my own] personal experience and we thought that it would be extremely helpful on a college campus, where the possibility of being followed or harassed is larger than in other places,” said McConnell. “I’m proud of what we put together in just 30 hours.”

According to a 2007 study by the U.S. Department of Justice, one in five college women are the victims of attempted or completed sexual assault. 

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, for the period from 1995 to 2013, women ages 18-24 (typically college-aged) had the highest rate of rape and sexual assault compared to women in all other age groups.

McConnell said one of the reasons she joined the competition was because it was only for women.

“I saw Facebook advertising and decided to try it,” McConnell said. “The fact that it is all women is great because it was more welcoming. I also think that the diversity of the ideas here might not have happened if there had been more guys, since many of the ideas had to do with equality or female welfare.” 

Women in Computer Science, the Society of Women Engineers, the Department of Computer Science at Pitt and The Innovation Institute hosted the event. National Center for Women and Infortmation Technology and Symantec were the event’s primary organizers. Sponsers included Google, NetApp, kWantera, ANSYS, GraphicStock, United States Steel and CEI.

Laura Fulton, event organizer and co-chair of the Society of Women Engineers,  said the event’s initial success was exciting. 

 “We had so many student volunteers, mentors and participants, and everything ran very smoothly. The companies that we reached out to were also very willing to help out,” Fulton, a sophomore biology and computer engineering major, said.

Students freely provided compliments and questions between the teams, and participants were supportive and interested in each other’s ideas and plans. Long after awards were given, people stayed behind to talk and congratulate the winners and plan how to continue their ideas. 

The participants also gave out two awards to their peers. One such award is “Most Philanthropic” which the participants awarded to the app called “Cropsburgh.” “Cropsburgh” connects users with local farmers and farm stands and allows fresh goods to be sent straight to the users, enforcing a healthier lifestyle. In addition to first place, “Most Creative” also went to the “The Defenders.” 

“I think everyone learned a lot throughout the past weekend,” McConnell said. “Everyone had great ideas and the competition was very strong.”

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