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Destler Dodge

Seeking to further build a sense of community among aspiring women programmers, Women in Computing (WiC) held their fourth annual WiCHacks competition on Feb. 25 and 26. In the eyes of both the organizers and participants, this year's event succeeded in growing a network, as well as supporting more women to get involved in this area of technology.

How Events Like WiCHacks Build Community

“Hackathons are these contests where you have to 'hack out as much code' as you can in however long the hackathon is,” said Marianna Sternefeld, a second year Computer Software Engineer and a volunteer for WiCHacks. WiCHacks contestants, for instance, had 24 hours to program an app, web application or other type of original software. The competition was open to both college age and high school students 16 and up. WiCHacks groups up its college-age contestants randomly, but tasks everyone to work in a team.

“[It's] just good for morale, you don’t have to do this alone, you have other people to work with," noted Sternefeld. "If I came here as a high school senior and had to work by myself I would probably be a lot more intimidated." 

Mike Swift of Major League Hacking, an organization which works with and equips many university-run hackathons, noted how camaraderie is central to a successful hackathon. He added that a sense of community is one of the biggest potential appeals of such events. 

"Going to a hackathon is actually a really scary thought," he noted. "You don’t know who you are going to work with, you’re not sure how it's going to be. And so you come in here and you find this amazing community that’s welcoming you with open arms and is super excited to help you."

For WiCHacks specifically, the aim is to engender that communal feel among women programmers.

“The whole point of this is to feel included.”

“The whole point of this is to feel included,” noted Sternefeld. "WiCHacks is an all-women's hackathon aimed to kind of bridge the gap between male and females in technology, because I know in Golisano itself it’s only 20 percent women in the entire college which is ... not very good.” 

What goes hand and hand with bolstering the aforementioned community is making women in computer science more visible to everyone and one another. WiCHacks has sought to address this head on with the presence of mentors from their sponsors at the competition.

"All of our sponsors have the opportunity to be a mentor and lend a hand with technical knowledge, project planning knowledge, etc." explained Courtney McGorrill, head of logistics for Women in Computing and a fifth year Computer Science major. She added that in addition to sparking ideas through their Tech Talks and workshops at the Hackathon, they were facing competitors that they could turn to for input. Sternefeld also noted how many of the engineers from sponsor companies were once in such students' shoes and that their presence helps bring up morale.

"They wanted to send their best female engineers and show that even though you are not in the majority there are still people like you (role models).”

“If you notice, a lot of the engineers that came this year — a lot of them are female," Sternefeld pointed out. "They wanted to send their best female engineers and show that even though you are not in the majority there are still people like you (role models).”

The Winners of WiCHacks 2017

According to McGorrill, this year's hackathon had great success bringing in students from outside of Rochester as well.

"We got buses to go all the way to Waterloo, Toronto, all the way out to Albany to bring people here just for this event," McGorill said. "It was the first year we’ve done something like that."

They all competed for a wide variety of awards. The winners of each are listed at the end of this article.

While there were many impressive hacks, only one team managed to take home as many as three awards. Team #17, the makers of Delivery Help, managed to earn the Best Women and Gender Issues Hack, recognition as the Most Innovative as well as the Rookie Award.

Developed by Audriana Visca, Caitlin Sanders, Devon Platzer, Natalie Neamtu, Hanna Waselovich — all high school students from the Rochester area — Delivery Help was designed as means to help domestic abuse victims.

On the surface, the app appears as a Grubhub-style delivery service, but in reality it is a means for victims to have a cover for transportation arriving at their location without the abuser suspecting. Its inspiration stemmed from a story one of the developers had heard about how a domestic abuse victim had illuded her abuser by pretending to order a pizza, while actually calling 911.

The app's also includes the ability to directly call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline, as well as access to transportation and medical care information — all without a browser history to worry about. Additionally, there is an in-app journal for victims to document the abuses and even (should the user need to) the ability to quickly get off the page; by pressing a "pizza" icon it will immediately make it seem like they are googling pizzerias instead.

None of the members on Team #17 had actually ever used Android Studio before, the application they developed 'Delivery Help' on, let alone any sort of app. Jokingly they admitted to having used Google quite a bit.

Even before receiving the awards, the members of Team #17 recalled how excited they were to just have access to such an experience. They all hope to continue programming into college in some capacity.

Sternefeld noted that one of WiCHacks biggest aims is to show prospective high-school programmers, such as those behind Delivery Help, that there are women just like them in computer science. Both Sternefeld and McGorrill had mentioned as well how they've observed the event — and the community surrounding it — grow year after year. It is their intention for that to continue to be the case for the foreseeable future. 

"We just want to spread it as much as we can," proclaimed Sterenefeld. "Because we definitely feel this is something worthy to promote.”

The winners this year are as follows:

  • Best Hack for Social Good by JP Morgan: "I-message" Team #1
  • Best Teaching Programming Hack by Hubspot: "Hello World" Team #9
  • Best Women and Gender Issues Hack by Viacom: "Delivery Help" Team #17
  • Most Innovative by Intuit: "Delivery Help" Team #17
  • Technical Difficultly by Constant Contact: "Team Stealth" #29
  • Rookie Award by Bank of America: "Delivery Help" Team #17 & "Code-versation" Team #8
  • Best UI by New Relic: "Light code" Team #22
  • Best Web App by MyTech: "Code-versation" Team #8
  • Best Hardware Hack by Liberty Mutual: "Light code" Team #22 & "Time out" Team #10
  • Most Novel by WiC a RIT: "Kick Harassment" Team #23
  • Best Open Source Hack by RedHat: "Hello World" Team #9
  • Best Use of Amazon Web Services by Major League Hacking: "Light-tunes" Team #18
  • Best Hack Against Online Harassment  by Major League Hacking: "Team Stealth" #29
  • Best Domain Name registered on Domain.com by Major League Hacking: "Kick Harassment" Team #23