Swarthmore Computer Scientists Win Google Hackathon

Hackathon team

The Swarthmore team (Simon Bloch '17, Nader Helmy '17, Michael Piazza '17, Miguel Gutierrez Ruiz '18, and Dylan Jeffers '15) used every bit of the 48 hours to create its "Alli" app from scratch.

So, what’s it actually like to compete in a 48-hour hackathon?

“It's like spending two all-nighters to finish a final project,” says Dylan Jeffers ’15, a computer science major from Pacific Palisades, Calif., “except there's unlimited food, coffee, and software engineers.”

“Exhilarating, grueling, sleepless, and inspiring,” adds Nader Helmy ’17, of Lakeville, Minn. “It truly pushes you to your mental and physical limits.”

Jeffers, Helmy, and three other Swatties overcame these challenges — and some last-minute technical snags — en route to winning Google’s Hack4Humanity event in New York City in December. The Swarthmore team used every bit of the 48 hours to create its app, Alli, from scratch, topping teams from Harvard, Yale, Columbia, UPenn, and five other schools.

“One breakthrough led to another, and our app came together just as breakfast was arriving [the morning of the demonstrations],” Helmy says. “There was nothing like it.”

Organized by Google Ideas, the hackathon focused on building apps or programs to tackle social issues and featured presentations from Christopher Reeve, the United Nations, and UNICEF. The Swatties designed Alli to help raise awareness of and prevent sexual assault on college campuses. Community members can send and view anonymous distress alerts on the app.

“We wanted to create something that addressed the root of the problem and not its symptoms,” says Helmy. “It’s an inclusive, community-building tool that everyone can take ownership of.”

The students will continue to develop the app, in collaboration with other members of the campus community. Brendan Collins of Google’s University Programs calls their approach to this issue “incredibly empathetic and wise beyond their collective years.”

The victory was entirely student-driven, says Lisa Meeden, professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science. Students used Java programming language at the event, which is similar to one of the three languages (C++) that are taught at Swarthmore.

“One of our goals is to expose students to a variety of languages so that they can pick up new ones,” says Meeden, noting the rapid growth of the field. “It’s exciting to see them use their programming skills to create important and useful applications as they did here.”

Rounded out by Michael Piazza ’17, of Oakland, Calif., Simon Bloch ’17, of New York, N.Y., and Miguel Gutierrez Ruiz ’18, of Phoenix, Ariz., the team took a bus to Google’s New York City office on December 5. The hackathon was mostly a grind, but competitors did get breaks for massages, gourmet coffee, and even impromptu Taylor Swift dance parties. They fostered a tight-knit but temporary community.

“We joked shortly after the hackathon that it would be difficult to go back to regular everyday life because we had such a journey in such a condensed amount of time,” says Helmy.

With about six hours to go, the Swatties received some discouraging criticism about Alli. Then the app started breaking down, costing them two of those precious hours as the students’ exhaustion peaked. But the team persevered and wowed the judges with the app’s simplicity and power.

“Our reaction was disbelief and complete jubilation,” says Helmy. “More than that, though, it felt like a massive affirmation of our idea and the cause we were trying to tackle. It showed us what it means to dream big and have that validated.”

Adds Collins: “Their tearful acceptance speech was truly inspiring, a perfect capstone to a weekend of impactful work and visionary thinking.”