Hacking for a Good Cause
By Gabriella McNevin and Donald Rock (COM ’17)
A year after the tragic Boston Marathon Bombings, a group of engineers and computer scientists wanted to commemorate the tragedy. To help the community, mobile application development firm Intrepid Pursuits organized HackBostonStrong, an event that took place to encourage technological advancements to solve marathon-related issues. In an event announcement, Intrepid Pursuits said, “Armed with years of Boston Marathon running data, we’re calling all designers, developers and tech-minded folks to produce the best marathon-related tool.” The event was to take place on Friday, April 18th.
On Saturday, April 19th, three BU students and one UMass Lowell student were named the winners of HackBostonStrong. Winston Chen (ECE ’16), Dean Shi (ECE ’16), Huy Le (CAS ‘16), and Corey Prak (UMass Lowell ’15) joined the ranks of industry professionals and student-hackers to show their support for the city. The team was one of the few groups that worked through the night to take advantage of the 26.2 hours allotted to each team.
The team worked at Intrepid Pursuits’ design space in Cambridge, MA, which was open to all 6 teams who participated in the event. The organizers kept participants fed and hydrated with meals and snacks throughout the night. Participants brought their own toothbrushes and laptops for “all-night productivity.”
The students worked diligently. Team member Huy Le recalls getting the most sleep of anyone in the group with 5.5 hours. Winston slept 3 hours, Corey slept around 5 hours, and Dean gave into 1 hour of sleep.
Their hard work paid off. The team developed the “Echo Can,” which is a device that could change the way people think about recycling. It is a green bin that sorts recyclable waste from unrecyclable. It tracks the audio signals of an object being dropped into the trashcan. A microphone, placed inside the can, discerns the analog signal, which is later translated into a digital format.
Team members worked together to blend their unique skills. Le and Prak used an open source program to see graphs of the frequencies of the sound waves detected from the platform and were able to find reasonable thresholds to distinguish between recyclable and waste material. Chen and Shi used their ECE skillset to develop the electrical engineering circuits with tools they had learned in Electric Circuit Theory (EK307). The pair also recalled lessons from Intro to Software Engineering (EC327) to apply C-language software programming.
The team was equipped with the few supplies allowed by a college student’s budget. They arrived with supply kits from Chen and Shi’s EK307 course, some resistors, servos they borrowed from BU’s hackerspace, and transistors they purchased at RadioShack. Other than those materials, everything else used were items one would be able to find in a dorm room – batteries, a bin, some cardboard, and tape. As Le explained, “not having the best material and supplies was a real issue.”
The team felt the Echo Can would be more beneficial to the community than any of the marathon-related tools they had conjured. The fine print in the competition rules revealed “if running’s not your jam, you could honor Boston by creating a more general product or prototype that benefits Boston and its citizens as a whole.”
In the end, the underdogs won. They were so surprised to win that Chen joked, “When I first heard them say Echo Can as the grand prize winner, I thought to myself, ‘Who is Echo Can?’”
Andrea Garvey of Intrepid Pursuits noted that the judges were impressed by Echo Can because it was “an elegant solution to a common problem.” Contests were judged on four criteria: innovation, design, impact, and execution. They were expected to create a practical design that would solve a real problem in a feasible way and could impact a lot of people. Le believes his team was different from his impressive competitors because the team “fulfilled the criteria in an interesting way.” Echo Can addresses a common aversion to recycling and offers a solution that is convenient to potential users.
This win may be the first highlight for the young hackers’ recycling initiative. In addition to winning $2,000, Intrepid Pursuits put the team in touch with BigBelly Solar, the company that created the sustainability solar cans found on BU’s campus, to help the students going forward. The team feels that their current design is not ready for a business venture and they look forward to continuing to work on the project without the time and resource restrictions. Le remarked, “an imperfect product doesn’t fulfill our vision.” He continued, “our plan is to improve, perfect, and innovate a polished Echo Can for practical use for the fall, and hopefully, we have something that fits the original goal and vision our team had.”