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‘Hacking’ homelessness at Catholic University

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It was a day of creativity and collaborative thinking, as students at The Catholic University of America in Washington recently competed to develop high-tech solutions for helping Washington’s homeless population.

The students were participating in Hacking Homelessness, the university’s first-ever hackathon, which was hosted by the School of Engineering in collaboration with the Department of Human Services in Washington. As part of the competition, 40 students were split into teams and challenged to develop a program or system that would use data science and engineering to improve the lives of people living in homelessness. After 4 1/2 hours of intensive work with their teams, the students presented their ideas before a panel of judges.

The event was sponsored by Rocket Software, which provided Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets to each member of the first-place winning team. The winners also will have the chance to compete in the first-ever Vatican Hackathon March 8-11 in Rome.

Hang Liu, associate professor of engineering, was one of the event organizers. He believes hackathons are valuable learning experiences, allowing students to “use their own technical background to solve real-world problems.” He said that the event was open to students from all majors, in order to encourage new and different ways of thinking.

“The problem we are trying to solve is a social problem, not purely a technical one, so we need this multidisciplinary thinking,” he said. “It’s not just about coding something or programming something. We need to have a more complete solution to really understand the situation and form an idea that can solve the problem.”

Claiborne Gayden, the development director for the School of Engineering, said the hackathon was also a response to the global grand challenge of “renewing urban infrastructure” that was issued by the National Academy of Engineering in 2008. Catholic U.’s engineering school is one of only a few Catholic engineering programs in the United States to participate in the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenge Scholars Program, which prepares students to solve some of the largest challenges facing society in the 21st century.

The day began with a panel discussion featuring representatives from local government and the technology industry who spoke about the ways data and technology can help alleviate problems related to homelessness.

Carter Hewgley, the senior adviser for family and homeless services at DHS, explained how data can be used to model system dynamics that contribute to homelessness or to optimize the algorithms used to determine homeless clients in the most urgent need of assistance.

Hackathons, Hewgley said, are a great source of new ideas for the government.

“We’re never going to get where we need to go in combatting homelessness without partnerships,” he said. “Hackathons are a really good way to build those relationships and leverage people’s talents for the problem we all have, which is that too many of our neighbors are at risk.”

Find out more

For more information on the Vatican Hackathon, go to vhacks.org.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018