UW-Madison Computer Sciences Students Fill the COVID-19 gap with BadgerHacks

By Elea Levin

Deepak Ramalingam

On January 21 at 6 a.m.,125 people across the country and the world put their heads down and dove into three full days of coding. They were participating in BadgerHacks, a hackathon organized by three UW-Madison Computer Sciences freshmen and entirely run by UW-Madison students with the support of their advisor, Dr. Hobbes Legault.

When the 72 hours were up, 35 valid projects were submitted, and five winning teams were chosen. Participants could create their own individual project or work on a team of up to four people. The winning projects ranged from topics such as early detection of Parkinson’s Disease to making slideshow creation easier. 

Deepak Ramalingam, Pranav Kumar, and Stanley Tzeng came up with the idea for the competition and planned and coordinated details and logistics. They were inspired to create BadgerHacks after hearing that many of their peers were frustrated about a lack of opportunities to participate in hackathons this year because of COVID-19. 

Pranav Kumar

“Hackathons allow Computer Sciences majors to learn development skills that set them apart from other job candidates,” the founders said.  “Our Hackathon is unique because it was conducted completely online, and we had participants from around the world.”

Because BadgerHacks was entirely virtual, participants were allowed to join from any location. Though most hackers were UW-Madison students, they ended up having competitors from France, India, and Nigeria participate. 

Allowing non-students to participate in our Hackathon gave people from other countries with fewer resources an opportunity to develop and showcase their coding skills,” Ramalingam said. “Thus, allowing non-students and people without coding skills to compete resulted in a wide variety of unique projects.”

Another aspect of BadgerHacks that made it different from some other Hackathons is that participants did not have to be college students. Additionally, no previous coding experience was required, and help was available to those who did not come into the competition with much coding knowledge. By not requiring prior experience for participants to enter the competition, individuals who had never coded before were able to try it out and gain access to resources that would help them learn.

Stanley Tzeng

“Participants could make anything they wanted, and we had a dedicated Discord channel for questions about project development and code debugging,” the founders said. 

The first-place team’s project was called CarbonAI: Carbon Footprint Calculator. With this software, users can upload a picture of food and learn about how much carbon was emitted to make it. The team was inspired by the fact that food production accounts for about a fifth of the greenhouse gases emitted every year. They wanted to educate people about the impact their daily habits have on global warming. 

The second place winner was SlideSpeak, which makes it easier to create slideshows. Third place went to cryptoSense, a device that allows cryptocurrency day-traders to feel changes in Bitcoin value in real time as vibrations through non-invasive haptic feedback on the wrist. This saves people from needing to constantly look at a computer screen to keep up with stock prices. 

PDglint was the fourth place winner – a web app that helps with early Parkinson’s Disease diagnosis. Users are prompted to type random words into the app, which are then filtered and stored. The dataset that’s used contains keystroke logs of finger movements while typing from over 200 people, some with and some without Parkinson’s. Fifth place went to Image2Audio, a web app that converts images into Spotify playlists. 

The projects were judged on two main criteria: creativity and uniqueness – meaning the novelty of the ideas and their execution – and presentation, including the presence of any clear glitches. Six total judges evaluated the project. The three founders of BadgerHacks were all judges, in addition to UW-Madison freshman Dhananjayan P N; Chief Technology Officer at Understory, Inc. Eric Hewitt; and Principal Engineer at Fetch Rewards, Inc. Scott Rose.

Monetary prizes were awarded to the top five projects, and all prize money was split between the members of each team. 

Ramalingam, Kumar, and Tzeng are looking forward to organizing another successful BadgerHacks competition in the future. “We are planning to host it again next year because of the positive feedback we received from participants,” they said. “Our sponsors were also interested in supporting our event again in the future.”

To read all about BadgerHacks and watch the YouTube videos for each winning project, check out the BadgerHacks website.