The data’s in: GCU teams excel at Opportunity Hack
By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau
Zuri Muhammad was barely in elementary school when she saw some of her classmates struggling. They didn’t have enough money to buy shoes. Or food. They didn’t own new clothes.
So Zuri asked her mom, Kimberly Muhammad, what her family could do to help.
Not long afterward, the now 12-year-old sketched a drawing that would become the logo for what is known as Zuri’s Circle, a small, Peoria-based nonprofit that helps the homeless, elderly and families in need with food, furniture and clothing.
But after helping so many in need, it was time for a team of hackers from Grand Canyon University to turn the tables and help the nonprofit by solving one of its biggest tech problems: gathering and managing emails from various events.
The solution offered by those hackers, all senior computer programming students in the College of Science, Engineering and Technology, earned the team a big win at last weekend’s Phoenix PayPal Opportunity Hack. At the 18-hour, overnight hacking marathon, computer engineers, computer scientists and programmers volunteer their technical expertise to help nonprofits.
Trevor Moore, Carter Rice and Jordan Riley beat out 19 other teams at the event to win first place and a $1,000 cash prize. They will receive an additional $5,000 once they install a final version of their solution at the nonprofit by Jan. 13. They’re also guaranteed an interview with college recruiting teams at PayPal.
The win is a big coup for the team, which competed at Opportunity Hack 2018, though “we didn’t even place,” said Moore.
They weren’t the only Lopes to bring home accolades from the Opportunity Hack. A second GCU team placed third, and a third team took fifth place.
“The PayPal engineers continue to be impressed with GCU students year after year,” said Dr. Isac Artzi, the college’s computer science faculty lead and one of the event judges (though not for GCU’s teams).
The winning team’s challenge was to build an email tracking and management system to improve upon what Zuri’s Circle has in place. In the current system, participants jot down their contact information by hand, though written-out email addresses are an imperfect way to collect information since it’s often difficult for the nonprofit to decipher some of the handwriting.
A better system, the nonprofit hoped, would help the organization keep in contact with its donors, service recipients and volunteers.
What the GCU team came up with is a computer email sign-in system. After a participant signs in, the system sends a confirmation email. Zuri’s Circle then can follow up with a request for feedback from event participants. The system also can analyze the feedback so the nonprofit can gauge how participants feel about the event.
Moore said she and her team members knew before going in which of the eight nonprofits they wanted to help and what they wanted to build.
“Specifically, we wanted a good-use case for machine learning,” said Moore, and machine learning is one of the features of the team’s design.
When Zuri’s Circle receives feedback from participants, “we analyze that feedback and make a prediction on whether it’s a positive or negative comment or neutral, based off its score,” Moore said of the machine-learning aspect of the design. The team used a logistic regression algorithm that allowed it to perform “sentiment analysis,” or an analysis of how participants feel about an event. “It gets that score by using machine learning, and then we graph that out for them so that they can go back and look at that event and say, ‘OK, that was a super successful event, people liked it.’ They also can read through the actual responses.”
Another cool aspect of the design, Rice said, is that it outsources the system’s emailing capabilities through a Twilio SendGrid. That way, the system doesn’t have to manage the emails.
The team also outsourced how the site authenticates the users who log into the site.
“We used Google OAuth (Google Open Authorization). … It will basically go, ‘Oh, log into our site using your Google account,” Moore said. “We secure our site using that, and all our endpoints on our site use JSON web tokens so no one except the nonprofit will be able to use the site.”
Another aspect the team had to consider: coming up with a cost-effective solution.
“These are nonprofits, so it can’t be expensive,” Rice said of Zuri’s Dashboard, which is a free solution for the organization.
Rice said he thought the team won the Opportunity Hack because the group communicated well with the nonprofit. The team presented well, too. They also met all the criteria, such as one-button deployment, and, in the end, got credit for “knowing our stuff.”
It’s stuff the team members said they learned at the University. They learn web frameworks that apply to their degree. They also helm a lot of presentations.
“It gets us comfortable with presenting and speaking to our technology,” Rice said. “We’re grilled pretty hard on terminology and making sure we say things correctly so we’re not just saying what we think it is, but we can speak to it and speak to what we know it is and how it works.”
Moore added that what has helped is that students are required to complete a slew of projects in their classes: “We make a project each semester with typically some new technology, new web framework or a different stack. Just doing that each semester, you just get good at being able to make a project, from start to finish.”
Rice added, “We can put on all the hats and do all the jobs; it’s pretty unique.”
GCU’s third-place team at the Opportunity Hack helped nonprofit RealTimeSTEAM, which organizes events at large conferences such as Phoenix Fan Fusion combine pop culture with science, technology, engineering, art and math. The organization wanted to find content for its educational presentations that combines STEAM with pop culture.
RealTimeSTEAM has spent months doing that research manually.
The team created a web application designed to search for the intersection between pop culture and STEAM articles. It’s something the app can do in minutes rather than months.
The team included GCU students majoring in Cybersecurity, Computer Programming and Computer Science with an Emphasis in Big Data & Analytics. They are Rushabh Shah, Taylor Rosby, Charinee Chantarasak, Allyson Meyer and Jamie Reichenberger.
A mix of GCU and Arizona State University students made up the fifth-place team, which was paired with nonprofit Neurologic Music Therapy Services of Arizona. Students from GCU on that fifth-place team are computer programming bachelor’s degree students Stanley Backlund and Ruben Cerrato. The team created an app that organizes patient data and makes it easy for therapists to read.
Follow GCU senior writer Lana.Sweeten-Shults@gcu.edu or at 602-639-7901.
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