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Two computer science seniors compete at PBS MediaShift Hackathon

Julia Duncan and Lawrence Williams headshots.

Computer science seniors Julia Duncan and Lawrence Williams joined three MU journalism students at the second-annual MediaShift Journalism School Hackathon from Feb. 27 to March 1 at Arizona State University.

Two University of Missouri computer science students joined three MU journalism students at the second-annual PBS MediaShift Journalism School Hackathon from Feb. 27 to March 1 at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in Phoenix.

Computer science seniors Julia Duncan and Lawrence Williams joined journalism seniors Katie Jones and Siqi Lin and graduate student Jenny Sanchez at the event. Duncan, Lin and Sanchez were members of teams that earned honorable mention honors for their work.

The students were placed on different teams upon arrival with fellow participants from other colleges and universities. After hearing from several entrepreneurial speakers, the teams went to work conceptualizing media projects that met the Hackathon’s mission of reaching underserved and underrepresented populations. The Hackathon provided prompts for the teams to work from.

Duncan and Williams became involved with the journalism and entrepreneur-centric event through their Mobile Apps Development class, which is a collaborative effort between computer science and journalism.

Duncan’s team included students from the University of North Carolina, University of Nevada, Bennett College and Northern Arizona University. The team of six was given the task of creating an app under the umbrella of gaming to reach an audience of people with disabilities. Their conceptualized app would allow people such as wheelchair users and those who are blind or vision-impaired to check the accessibility and safety of possible routes from their location to a particular business.

“They can look up where construction areas, pot holes, and other problem areas such as unexpected drop-offs are so they know to avoid the area or find an alternate route. Almost all of the cross walks in Phoenix had beeping noises to alert blind pedestrians of a cross walk and made a different noise that sort of sounds like machine guns that tells the pedestrian that it is safe to cross,” Duncan said. “We also allow for users to look up restaurants and see how accessible they are as far as if there is room for a wheelchair, if there are braille menus, and other aspects of life that individuals with disabilities encounter.”

Duncan said that the team ran into their fair share of ups and downs in the short time frame in which they had to work, but they were able to put together a strong pitch in order to earn honorable mention honors.

“A lot of the students found the idea really amazing and useful, so to receive honorable mention felt pretty good,” she said.

Williams’ team included students from Tufts, Wisconsin and American universities and a pair of faculty facilitators. They were tasked with creating an app benefitting the Hispanic community and came up with the idea of an app to provide members of the community without insurance a connection to medical professionals who can answer the kind of medical questions they may be afraid to ask in person.

“In many situations, where there’s someone who isn’t legally here or something like that, they don’t have health insurance, so they can’t access a doctor or go to an emergency room if they’re sick,” Williams said. “So many times what they do is they have someone who has insurance go to a doctor and say that they have the same symptoms that the original patient has and be told what to do.

“Our system would act as that person, where the patient would be able to communicate with a doctor and get care via an app and still remain anonymous.”

Lin’s team put together a pitch based around an app that intended to rebuild relationships between journalists and the Native American community by embedding journalists in those communities. Sanchez’s team put together a pitch for an app that allows African-American users to connect with their culture while visiting various cities. Jones’ team took on the challenge of creating an app allowing first-generation college students to connect with students in a similar situation to create a support network.

Both Duncan and Williams expressed a hope for a more technology-centric approach for the Hackathon in the future. Regardless, both found the Hackathon an enjoyable and valuable experience.

“It’s a set of skills that I don’t normally get to build or use. It was more an entrepreneurial set of skills,” Williams said. “Market research-oriented sets of skills. It was a learning experience for that reason.”

“The speakers were great and had a lot of innovative ideas. I think it was beneficial to have speakers who have all been involved in previous, failed, and current start-ups. This helped the students who attended have a sense of how to make their start-up successful,” Duncan said.