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MU grad student’s app wins first place at HackIllinois competition

Three men pose for a photo, with the one on the right gesturing with his hands.

MU’s Brendan Alvey teamed with Pranjal Daga and Suyash Gupta from Purdue and Evan Desantola of Carnegie Mellon (not pictured) to take first place at the 2016 Hack Illinois software competition. Photo courtesy of Brendan Alvey.

MU College of Engineering graduate student Brendan Alvey was part of a four-person team that won first place at the 2016 Hack Illinois software competition on Feb. 19-21. The team also won Microsoft’s award for best use of their Application Program Interface.

Their winning web application, “NeuroDoc,” can detect symptoms of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

The app collects data using three tests: motion, handwriting and speech:

  • For the first test, the user wears a gesture-detecting Myo armband and tries to keep their hand still for 20 to 30 seconds while the band records the strength of their tremors.
  • People with neurodegenerative diseases are more likely to stutter when they talk, so test two has the user upload a recorded speech sample so that the NeuroDoc can detect the number of stuttered instances.
  • Finally, the handwriting test takes a sample of the user’s signature. The app then compares the signature to collected data from those with and without neurodegenerative diseases.

With the three tests, NeuroDoc generates the user’s probability for having a neurological disorder and makes appropriate suggestions about whether the user should consider seeing a doctor.

“It’s a nice way to end a weekend you weren’t planning on having,” Alvey said of winning the awards.

Alvey originally wasn’t supposed to attend HackIllinois at all; he was late signing up for the competition and was put on the waiting list, but the morning the group was leaving, he found out that a couple of students wouldn’t be able to go. Alvey made the split-second decision to ride along to the competition, which was held at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

While others had packed for a three-day weekend, he came only with the book bag and laptop he brought to class that day. “I had no idea I was leaving that morning,” Alvey said. “Luckily I paid eight hours in the meter at Turner [Parking Garage].”

After Alvey found himself without a team, he came across a group of three who were looking for another member: Suyash Gupta and Pranjal Daga from Purdue, and Evan Desantola of Carnegie Mellon.

“Evan — he goes, ‘hold out your phone, and if you look its kind of shaking. With Parkinson’s or something, we can maybe detect that,’” Alvey said. Alvey liked the idea, and the new team got straight to work.

The students worked tirelessly over the weekend to produce the app within the 36-hour time limit, and it was up and running by the 11 a.m. Sunday deadline.

Alvey began thinking they might have a chance when more and more judges began stopping by their booth and giving positive feedback. “That was, like, awesome, after spending three days slaving over this,” Alvey said.

When the team won first place as well as the Microsoft prize, Alvey said he was ecstatic. “This is the very first competition like this I’ve ever done so I was like ‘holy cow,’ totally in the clouds.”

After the competition, Alvey said Microsoft reached out to the team and encouraged them to submit to their 2016 Imagine Cup competition.

“They’re interested — they put us through the first round automatically,” Alvey said. “Hopefully we get some positive stuff back, but regardless we’ve got some amazing learning experience.”