Hacking for Social Good

November 11, 2013—Before “hacking” meant stealing identities and credit card numbers, hacking referred to sitting down and finding a solution to a problem. Four Georgetown computer science majors recently won PayPal’s hackathon, Battle Hack DC, with an app that addresses Washington, DC’s homelessness problem.

At Battle Hack DC, Welles Robinson (C’14), Janet Zhu (C’15), Kristen Schwabe-Fry (C’14), and Andrew Hian-Cheong (C’15) had 24 hours to create something that could “improve the way your city functions,” Janet Zhu said. The only catch was that the product had to involve a financial transaction that would incorporate PayPal’s API (application programming interface). Companies give away access to their API so their product is used on other websites and apps. According to Hian-Cheong, we encounter APIs everywhere, prompting us to “Pay with PayPal” or “Login with Facebook.”

After a few hours of talking through ideas, the students decided to create PhilanthroFeed, an Android app that allows smartphone users to donate money to homeless people. Robinson hoped the app could help bypass individuals’ hesitations to giving on the street—whether it’s not having cash or wanting to ensure money is used for life essentials. The app allows users to donate money directly to an individual’s account, which can be redeemed at participating restaurants and delis.

PhilanthroFeed would allow users or social workers to create profiles for homeless individuals. “They’d only need Internet access once,” Robinson explained. Individuals can find out about their balance a few ways: from the donating user, from a partner restaurant, or via text message. While a homeless person would not need a smartphone to participate, Robinson says, the students’ research showed that many in the homeless population do have some kind of phone, which would allow people to receive text messages about their PhilanthroFeed balance.

Although hackathons allow programmers time to create a product that works, the Georgetown students also wanted to make sure their idea worked. So as Robinson and Hian-Cheong continued to work on the app within the 24-hour deadline, Zhu and Schwabe-Fry went to speak with people in Federal Triangle to learn if PhilanthroFeed would actually help them. The students met Mark, a homeless man who had lost his job a few months ago and was struggling to find work. “When we discussed our idea with Mark, he embraced it,” Schwabe-Fry said. “He even opened up to us about his own personal story and how our idea could make a positive difference for him, and he was incredibly supportive and encouraging of our work,” she continued.

The students know that PhilanthroFeed still needs work. “It would require implementation outside of a hackathon,” Zhu said. But the point of a hackathon, Robinson says, is not to create a perfect product, but to come up with a solution to a problem in a limited amount of time. “It’s about coming up with a solution that might not be optimal, but it works,” he explained. “You get [the app] to work, and then you try to make it better.”

As a possible next step, the students have discussed partnering with local organizations that work with DC’s homeless population. Nonprofits could help create partnerships with restaurants and potentially use the students’ template to implement the app. “I would absolutely love to see more work done on PhilanthroFeed to turn it into something that people in our city can actually download onto their phones and use,” Schwabe-Fry said. “I think it addresses a worthwhile problem in our community and has a lot of potential,” she continued.

For now, the students are focused on the Battle Hack finals in California, where they will have 24 hours to create a new product. Georgetown is the only team of university students to make it to the finals, and they will be competing with professionals in their field from around the world. At the finals, there will be no limitations or themes. “It’s completely open; we just have to use the PayPal API again,” Hian-Cheong said. The students have been hashing out ideas, but they won’t be allowed to do any coding until the competition starts.

“We went into the experience wanting to try something new, hoping to have some fun together, and get some good programming experience while we were at it. We ended up getting all of that and more,” Schwabe-Fry said. “I’m looking forward to seeing what we are able to hack together this time.”

—Elizabeth Wilson