At a 24-hour hackathon of the brightest kids, school shootings are dark spark to innovation
America’s epidemic of school shootings has inspired students to take on the issue politically. This weekend’s overnight MetroHacks III event showed students have been forced to think of it as a problem that might be dealt with through technology.
The annual free event brings in students ages 13 to 18 with any level of experience in tech to participate in workshops, hear from experts and above all build, going from initial concept to pitchable prototype within the space of a largely sleepless 24 hours. Food is provided, along with an impressive array of Bose speakers, Arduino microcontrollers, tiny Raspberry Pi computers and two sprawling floors of conference rooms, lounges and whiteboards in Harvard’s Student Organization Center at Hilles – all organized by high schoolers.
The event continues Sunday, with presentations to judges leading to an awards ceremony in the early afternoon. (“The presentations were chock full of energy, in spite of the lack of sleep,” executive director Annamira O’Toole said afterward.)
MetroHacks III began at noon Saturday, a day after the 22nd school shooting this year in which someone was hurt or killed. A few teams among dozens in the complex had saving lives on their minds.
Sympathy among sociopaths
Siobhan Gannon, speaking for a small team from the Advanced Math and Science Academy Charter School in Marlboro, explained an app called AdApt meant to treat antisocial personality disorder – seen in sociopaths, who don’t care about right or wrong, or the feelings of others.
“School shooters would most likely have this, and were’ trying to treat it before it gets out of hand,” Gannon said, amid a lounge area cluttered with power strips, Tootsie Roll Pops and pizza boxes. “It’s really hard to treat, because they don’t want treatment. We’re trying to make an app with a game on it so the kids don’t know they’re being treated.”
Parents would first use questions asked via the app to diagnose their child. In the game component, the kid being treated would raise a virtual pet – a friendly green blob, in the version being worked on Saturday afternoon – and help it thrive, building up their sympathy for others. In research done in the team’s AP psychology class, “everything we’ve looked up says it’s hard to treat,” Gannon said. “There’s not a lot of treatments out there, which is why we wanted to go after it.”
School evacuation app
In a small, white room on the far side of the fourth floor, a team of three students from the same charter school had a concept for how to deal with school shootings if AdApt failed: An app called ProTECH, a name including an acronym for Teachers Evacuate Children, that uses school security cameras and image recognition software to help spot intruders with guns. A server sends out a spoken alert identifying where the shooter is – based on which school security camera has spotted and is tracking the threat – and showing “hallways that could be dangerous to pass through, because the shooter is close to them,” student Sruthi Kurada said. “The app will also tell you the easiest way to get out of the building using a flood fill algorithm, which helps find the most optimal path to get from one place to another with a barricade.”
The team spent until late Friday – the same day as a shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, that killed at least eight people – thinking about different ideas to bring to the hackathon, teammate Anish Mudide said. ProTech is meant to work with the Alice system (for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) “because a lot of schools already have Alice, but still these things are happening,” Mudide said.
“We wanted to come up with an app that would help save more people,” Kurada said.
Mental health, but also music
Nearby was a team working on apps that might ease depression and prevent suicide, giving words of inspiration and resources to call or view, as well as ways for people to reach out to the troubled. (“You can click ‘How can I get help’ or ‘How can I help,’” said Dorchester’s Candace Williams, showing the rough wireframes she developed with partner Yooyoo Chang of Dover. “Human interaction is really important.”) At the same table was the Mental Mentors team (“still working on the name,” a team member said), whose website includes a chatroom to talk with a peer or professional about emotional issues. “We don’t think this exists,” said Anika Bharatan, whose team came from Burlington, Newton and Westford.
Not every project carried such emotional weight. Valery Delva of Malden said his team was working on a system that would play music when you entered the house, could manage to switch moods as you switched rooms and was smart enough to lower the music’s volume when it detected people talking. Luis Alvarez of Lexington was part of a team working on a motion synthesizer that would turn fingering in the air into beats and melody. There were lie detectors, blockchain applications, DIY smart home apps to change temperature and lighting and a virtual reality model of the human body that lets users just touch where they might be hurting and enter relevant symptoms to diagnose a health problem. The app would even call 911 in an emergency. It uses the Google Cardboard headset, which can cost just a few dollars, because “we want it to be more accessible for people who can’t afford to go to the doctor if they’re not sure,” said Levi Bloch, of the Needham High Robotics Team.
There were many hackathon veterans, including some who’d been at the previous MetroHacks events. But even first-timers had ambitious projects before them Saturday. “All of us are beginners, so we’re not really expecting all that much – we’re just doing it to do it,” said Chang Jin of Amherst, whose team from Woodstock, Connecticut, and New Hampshire had nonetheless decided to try a carbon footprint calculator. It would take variables such as mileage driven daily to assess greenhouse gas emissions and give advice on how to decrease the resulting damage to the Earth.