SPRINGBOX / Insights

Springbox Steps In To Mentor and Judge Texas State Hackathon

by John Vanderveen, May 10, 2017

Springbox was happy to support the 2017 Texas State University CS + ComDes Smart Cities Hackathon by providing mentors and judges. The two-day event is a great way for students to grow while learning important lessons about teamwork and problem solving.

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What is a “hackathon” you might ask? The word is a portmanteau of the words hack and marathon, in which hack refers to a sense of playful exploration in programming. According to Dave Fontenot, “Hackathons are venues for self-expression and creativity through technology.” In a short period of time, people with technical and design backgrounds form teams to focus on a thematic problem or idea. Teammates collaborate to create a unique solution from scratch. The results often take shape in the form of websites, mobile apps, etc.

What is a “hackathon” you might ask? The word is a portmanteau of the words hack and marathon, in which hack refers to a sense of playful exploration in programming.

This year marked the fourth year of the hackathon created by Grayson Lawrence and Ted Lehr. As Associate Professor of Communication Design at Texas State, Lawrence believes strongly in cross-disciplinary teams. He works hard to organize this opportunity for his students and those from the Computer Science program. It is important for students of these disciplines to learn to collaborate and understand one another better. They could very well be working side-by-side at companies like Springbox in the future.

This year's Smart Cities Hackathon focused on opportunities to improve the City of Austin. The event began with a breakfast kickoff at 9 a.m. on Friday, April 7, and ended around 9 p.m. on Saturday, April 8, 2017, with presentations and awards.

In the kickoff, representatives from the city challenged students with problems that Austin is facing with regards to housing, traffic and parking. Johnathon Tomko, City of Austin Principal Planner, started off with information on affordable housing challenges. Then, Sabine Romero from the City of Austin Legal Department talked about the city's Open Government Partnership Principles. She encouraged the students to "focus on the problems you can solve, not just the technology." And, Tina Bui from the Austin Transportation Department talked about the city’s myriad traffic and parking issues.

whiteboards and post-its
Whiteboards and Post-its are non-negotiables

After breakfast and the kickoff, the roughly 50 undergrad and graduate students split off into eight teams. The goal was for each team to include 3 designers and 3 developers. To help in their problem-solving endeavors, each team had an opportunity to integrate Bluetooth beacons or an Amazon Echo into their solutions, if appropriate.

Duncan Robertson, a User Experience and User Interface Designer, and John Vanderveen, a User Experience Designer, accepted the invitation to represent Springbox as both Mentors and Judges. As an alumnus of the Texas State MFA Communication Design program (2013), Duncan loved the opportunity to give back to his alma mater. John, a User Experience designer and former Industrial Designer, provided fresh perspectives and expertise on the intersection of hardware and software. The two brought Springbox's unique, interdisciplinary point of view to their comments and assessments. They mentored the contestants and judged the competition with an understanding of the process a team goes through when tackling such complex problems.

Springbox mentors giving sage adviceMentors giving sage advice.

On Friday afternoon, after a day full of concepting and brainstorming ideas, the students were ready for some input from their mentors. Duncan and John, along with two Texas State Faculty members, a Visual Designer from Fjord and a Developer from Logic Systems, evaluated each group’s progress. They provided feedback, encouragement and suggestions for how to strengthen their concepts. The goal here was to make sure each team was working from a solid foundation, instead of putting the proverbial cart before the horse. Much of the mentors' advice centered around integrating the design process into their approach. John frequently recalled the quote, “A problem well-stated is a problem half-solved.” The teams that heeded this advice from famed inventor and head of research at GM, Charles Kettering, were well served. The focus on user centered design fundamentals helped guide them toward solidifying their ideas before coding commenced.

On Saturday evening, the two Springbox mentors returned to judge the teams’ results. Starting at 5 o’clock p.m., each team had ten minutes to present their solutions and five additional minutes for questions from their judges and peers.

Though the teams had the opportunity to present blue sky solutions that could have consisted of any media, all teams decided either a website, web app or native Android or iOS app would best help their users. The teams tackled a range of problems from affordable housing and city buses to parking and traffic.

student working on computer, hacking for a cause
Hackers, hacking!

Our judges were happy to see strong empathy and research practices from many of the teams. When two groups took aim at housing, it was refreshing to see different approaches. Team 4 developed an empathetic solution based on their target audiences. They created personas and referred to them when selecting platforms, developing their user stories and making their branding decisions. Another group, Team 6, focused on the same problem but employed user research to find focus. They interviewed a teammate’s sister who recently went through the home search process to get real world user input. Both techniques mirror practices used by Springbox in real-world project research.

Another two groups chose parking as the focus of their efforts, as getting to your location is not always the biggest problem in a city like Austin. Team 7, “John Doe,” created one of the most innovative solutions of the event. Their parking-share application, named “Lots,” was essentially the “HomeAway” of parking spots. Their concept would allow the City and private citizens to sublease their parking spots for short or extended periods of time. Like the ubiquitous lodging application, Lots would enable people to lease or rent parking more easily than ever before.

For the Austin bus system, Team 3, "Green Eggs & RAM," focused on using the provided beacon to track passengers. They wanted to integrate a feature that indicates the capacity of the desired bus to the users of their proposed application. The idea was to let users know the best time to catch a ride. Plus, the city could use the information to design better bus routes and utilizations for buses during peak travel times.

Finally, Team 1, "Hooli," looked at traffic, everyone's favorite Austin problem. To reduce congestion, they would track data to recommend the best commute times. In gamifying rush-hour traffic they planned to encourage companies and commuters to commute in off-peak hours. The tagline says it all: “Using what’s great about Austin to make Austin greater.” The concept rewards local companies with Austin-specific goodies like passes to SXSW or ACL. All for helping to reduce traffic during rush-hour. Yes please!

Students coding on computer
Coders, coding!

When the presentations and judging were complete, only three of the eight teams could take home trophies. The Best of Show prize went to Team 1, "Hooli," for their fun and well-conceived solution to Austin's rush hour traffic. Best Design went to Team 6, "Real Team 6," for their great looking solution for low-income housing. And, the Best New Idea award went to Team 7, "John Doe," for their innovative approach to parking.

smart cities award presentation
Winners, winning!

In addition to these awards, our mentors-turned-judges also tapped Team 7, "John Doe," to receive the Springbox “Digital Partnership Award.” Of all the teams, their work best displayed Springbox’s interdisciplinary approach. Great teamwork and problem solving!

Springbox presents "Digital Partnership Award"

Springbox presents our very own "Digital Partnership" Award!

Springbox was excited to be invited to help with the hackathon and values giving back to the design community. Providing guidance to local students of User Centered Design, Development and other disciplines is a great way to strengthen those designers and the local technology and design scenes at large. Duncan and John also got a lot out of the experience. “It’s fun to help and teach, but we are also always learning,” John said of the experience. “Some of the ideas were extremely innovative and it was exciting to see these young designers and engineers contributing to help solve problems in our local community.”

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Topics: Design, Springbox, website, media production, horizon, creativity, Mobile Design, Responsive