Newhouse students dominate local hackathons to solve social issues

By Juliana LaBianca

December 9, 2014

Syracuse events tackled adult literacy, homelessness

Although many Newhouse students are new to hackathons, they’ve always been adept at solving problems and generating ideas. This semester, students in the Newhouse School’s web journalism and innovation class (ICC 505), along with other Newhouse and Syracuse University students, were strong participants in community-oriented hackathons.

One such hackathon benefited ProLiteracy, a local nonprofit that promotes adult literacy. ProLiteracy defines its hackathon as an event that “allows teams of innovators to build products and solve important problems relating to literacy, education and technology. The aim of this event is to make advances in the field of technology while supporting the education of adults all over the world.”

Three teams comprised of Newhouse students won first- and second-place prizes at the ProLiteracy and another hackathon.

“While the students may not have had technology backgrounds, we found that their strengths with communications, presentations, marketing, and social media all played into their contributions to these projects and efforts,” says Jon Glass, who co-taught the web journalism and innovation class with Dan Pacheco, the chair of journalism innovation at Newhouse. “It was a non-traditional class assignment. They not only had to understand technology, but work with others in that realm and tackle some really high-profile issues.”

The first of the two hackathons, the ProLiteracy Hackathon, was co-organized by The Tech Garden. The goal of the event was to use technology to find solutions related to international non-literacy, literacy program waiting lists, health literacy, incarceration recidivism as well as career and college readiness.

Team ideas were judged on creativity, value to the community, feasibility and execution. First prize was $2,500, $1,000 for second place and $500 for third.

Newhouse students Helena Battipaglia and Elisha Hahm joined forces with hackathon programmer Thomas Hart to create the first place winner, Page Turner. The application highlights and speaks words and sentences in books that the reader can follow along with. The app also keeps track of a user’s progress.

Second-place ProLiteracy Hackathon winners Seamus Kirst, Love Lee and Lauren Cavalli’s creation was a crowdsourcing website for literacy tutors called Folio. The website matches registered literacy tutors with literacy students, allowing students to access a tutor even if there is a waitlist at their local literacy center. 

Kirst, a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism program at the Newhouse School says his team had no idea what to expect at first.  

“There were five of us from our class who went to the ProLiteracy hack and didn’t have much coding or tech experience,” he says. “A few people pitched ideas, and then we paired off with them. So there were two people in our group who we didn’t know at first. At first I felt guilty because I wasn’t bringing any tech skills, but a guy on our team said he hated writing and presenting, so we really complemented each other.”

The Tech Garden also sponsored a second hack called Hack Hunger and Homelessness. The event was Nov. 8 and 9, which is the weekend before National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. That event was defined as "a 24-hour-event where civic leaders, programmers, designers and entrepreneurs collaborate intensively on software and hardware projects." Organizers made a $1,000 donation to keep the first-place idea alive, according to the hack's website. Newhouse students Varuni Sinha, Sarah Brechbill, Sara Berlinger, and Irfan Uraizee won second place at that hackathon for their #TheNextStep idea.

#TheNextStep is an anonymous online community that helps users find resources and support by matching clients with local organizations.

Sara Berlinger, a senior broadcast and digital journalism major, says her favorite part of the hackathon was being able to collaborate with people outside of the university community and see the skills they could bring to the table.

“I’m not a coder, so it was cool to work with people who were knowledgeable and knew the technical aspects of making a website or app,” she says. “There were four people in our group from the Rochester Institute of Technology, and we really complemented each others’ skills.”

Overall, Glass says students benefited from the experience most because they were able to apply the digital training they received throughout their Newhouse experience in a new setting that was, for some students, out of their comfort zone.

“They put this training into use in a situation that wasn’t necessarily writing a magazine or creating a video. But elements of creating content and being good storytellers all came into play,” he says. “I think many of them surprised themselves.”

Juliana LaBianca is a senior magazine journalism major at the Newhouse School.


Event details


ProLiteracy Hackathon

Purpose: Build products and solve important problems relating to literacy, education and technology.

Location: ProLiteracy, 103 Marcellus St., Syracuse

Dates: Sept. 13 and 14

Newhouse Winners: First place: Helena Battipaglia and Elisha Hahm; Second place: Seamus Kirst, Love Lee and Lauren Cavalli


Hack Hunger and Homelessness

Purpose: Use mobile and computing technology to solve hunger and homelessness.

Location: The Tech Garden, 235 Harrison St., Syracuse

Dates: Nov. 8 and 9

Winners: Second place: Varuni Sinha, Sarah Brechbill, Sara Berlinger and Irfan Uraizee