Students develop software to connect homeless agencies

WashU engineers took third place in GlobalHack VI

While it might seem counterintuitive to ask computer programmers from around the world to help solve the homelessness problem in St. Louis, that's exactly what a local organization did in October.

A team of Washington University School of Engineering & Applied Science students took third place in GlobalHack VI held in October. (From left) Justin Guyton, Ben Bush, Daniel Borstelmann, Darius Calliet, with Laurie Phillips, CEO of St. Patrick Center.

GlobalHack holds 48-hour intensive software development sessions, called hackathons, twice a year to give computer programmers and developers the opportunity to create a product prototype toward an assigned challenge. The company has hosted six hackathons since its beginning in 2013, all of which have included students and alumni from the School of Engineering & Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis, who have been successful in winning cash prizes and even getting jobs through the experience.

In the October event, GlobalHack VI, a team of School of Engineering & Applied Science students and an alumnus took third place in the College division, which brought with it a $25,000 cash prize. Members of the winning team, called STLUnited, were Daniel Borstelmann, who earned a bachelor's degree in applied science (computer science) with a minor in architecture in 2016; Ben Bush, a junior majoring in computer science; Darius Calliet, a senior majoring in computer science, applied science and business administration; and Justin Guyton, a junior majoring in computer science with a minor in electrical engineering. All four are veterans of the GlobalHack competitions and have been on teams that have won previous competitions. Thirty-six other WashU students also participated in the event on other teams.

While STLUnited brought their skills and lessons learned from previous competitions into GlobalHack VI, the event had a different mission than earlier ones: each team was challenged to create software that would help the 60 St. Louis-area agencies, such as the St. Patrick Center, that provide services to the homeless to do so more seamlessly.

To ensure that this becomes a reality and not only a weekend project, GlobalHack is targeting 2018 for its next 1,000-person hackathon and will use $250,000 of the $1 million designated for GlobalHack VI to focus on making this software a reality.

"We found that a lot of developers were in it for the social part, not for the money," said Delia Chassaing, recruitment and outreach coordinator for GlobalHack and a 2016 Washington University graduate with a bachelor's degree in economics and healthcare management and a minor in Italian. "We wanted to be building software that mattered globally and take a more hands-on approach."

Bush said the team knew in advance that the challenge would involve homelessness. Once the team received the challenge at the event's beginning on Friday evening, they had a few hours to brainstorm.

"There are a lot of excellent services in St. Louis that provide different resources and aid to homeless citizens, but from our perspective, what they were missing was a centralized system to share resources and more effectively communicate about who they were helping," Bush said. "We are tech-minded people – we don't know how to solve homelessness in St. Louis, but we have the ability to develop tools that can help people who do know how to solve homelessness."

The team developed a web application that lists all shelters in the area and the availability of their resources, such as open beds, meals, or ability to take children. Their idea was that a homeless person could fill out an application with their basic information using the app, then two things would result: the person would receive an immediate recommendation on where to go for the resources they needed, and the person's information would appear in a centralized database the team built that goes to all social workers.

Calliet, who has participated in about a half-dozen hackathons keeps returning because he says he enjoys the environment.

"We have one purpose, and that one purpose is to build this idea," he said.

While hackathons involve dedicating 48 hours to one project — with little or no sleep — which may not appeal to everyone, Chassaing recommends that WashU students, no matter their major, learn the basics of computer programming.

"I think it's a powerful tool becoming more and more so every day," she said. "I would encourage every WashU student to take CS 131 (Introduction to Computer Science). It's a different mindset, and the combination of that mindset and the skills that can be acquired in an intro class are fantastic.

"There is going to be a large gap in the workforce in terms of how many people have coding skills, and how many of those jobs are being filled," Chassaing said. "More and more focus should be on teaching coding skills and igniting a passion for that mindset as early as possible."

Dedric Carter, vice chancellor for operations and technology transfer and professor of practice in Engineering, says hackathons have much to offer students.

"The interesting opportunity of a hackathon such as GlobalHack is for students to transcend the lab and classroom to address challenging, and often complex real-world problems," he says. "These experiences shape a hunger for learning and solidify the skills necessary for the next generation of engineers. Engineers characterize, envision, solve, and build. GlobalHack provides an opportunity to touch on all of these areas."

Borstelmann, who was on a team that won Global Hack 1 in 2014 and now works for TopOpps, said that event changed his life.

“If I had not gone to GlobalHack 1, I wouldn’t have gotten the job I have now,” he said. “Through hackathons, I had my eyes opened to this whole other side of entrepreneurship and web startups. What hackathons gave me was the ability to see a different side of the real world. They expanded my perspective and sent me down a track where I was able to leave college with a whole new set of skills gained through work in the real world.”

The School of Engineering & Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis focuses intellectual efforts through a new convergence paradigm and builds on strengths, particularly as applied to medicine and health, energy and environment, entrepreneurship and security. With 88 tenured/tenure-track and 40 additional full-time faculty, 1,200 undergraduate students, 1,200 graduate students and 21,000 alumni, we are working to leverage our partnerships with academic and industry partners — across disciplines and across the world — to contribute to solving the greatest global challenges of the 21st century.