Team of Swarthmore Students Create First-Place Winning App at National Hackathon

By Liz Casey '14

A team of three Swarthmore computer science students – Amy Jin '15, Sam Zhang '14, and Zachary Lockett-Streiff '14 – and James Wu '15, a friend of theirs from Olin College, recently captured first place in the Data Visualization category at the PennApps Fall 2013 Hackathon.

The largest student-run hackathon in the nation, PennApps takes place one weekend each semester and features a collection of some of the most talented computer programmers from colleges around the world. In the span of 48 hours, teams of college programmers, designers, and engineers are tasked with creating a web or mobile app completely from scratch.

The Swarthmore team's winning app visualizes the movement of manuscripts in the Schoenberg Database, a database that enables researchers to track and identify the provenances of the world's manuscripts and books produced before 1600.

According to Jin, a math and computer science major from Olympia, Wash., the app provides "a new, fun, graphical perspective on a database that would be otherwise somewhat flat and esoteric."

The inspiration for their app came in the elevator ride to the University of Pennsylvania's Van Pelt Library, site of the competition. In the elevator, the group chatted with members of the Penn faculty and mentioned that they attended Swarthmore College. The faculty members, curators of the Schoenberg Database of Manuscripts, explained that they were acquaintances of Assistant Professor of English Rachel Buurma '99. That commonality sparked the idea.

"The curators asked us if we were interested in writing an application for them," Jin says. "Since we were looking for ideas, and one of the PennApps challenges was 'Best Use of Data,' we decided to go for it."

While knowing how to develop web and mobile apps from their computer science classes at Swarthmore, the students entered the competition with little to no hackathon experience. In programming classes and in computer science labs at Swarthmore, students are used to having professors specify what projects should look like at least in some amount of detail. During the hackathon, however, the decisions were left entirely in the their hands. 

"The implementation details were 100 percent up to us to plan out and realize," says Lockett-Streiff, a computer science major from Austin, Tex. "This allowed us more control over the project, but also faced us with many more difficult decisions in development."

The students had to learn new technologies and skills on the fly in order to completely finish the app within the allotted 48 hours. This not only meant facing the programming and development challenges that arose, but also working around the clock, fitting in limited sleep, and preserving sanity despite the time crunch. Cries of elation or frustration often echoed throughout the labs and workplaces as the contest progressed.

"We all know that software development is often a process of hunting down incredibly stubborn bugs and exasperation at our creations not working even though they should," Lockett-Streiff explains.

The members of the team remain in touch with the Penn faculty and are in the process of further developing the app for use.  The students also see themselves continuing app development in the future, both for fun and professional purposes. 

"App development is such a powerful, yet accessible way to contribute to people's lives," Lockett-Streiff says. "I want to use the skills I've learned to help those around me in any way I can."