Idea to Reality in 17 Hours

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Hackathons are home to big ideas; just ask UW Tacoma student Jumana Karwa.

(Photo above of Jumana Karwa by Mia Haney-Marshall.)

We’ve all seen it, the slow spinning wheel indicating the video we’re trying to watch is buffering.  It’s an annoyance, one we typically forget once the clip plays. This minor irritation is a big issue in other parts of the world that suffer from poor internet connectivity.  In these places, slow connection speeds can severely limit access to valuable information.

That’s something University of Washington Tacoma graduate student Jumana Karwa wants to change.  Karwa, a recent transplant from India, is getting her Master’s in Computer Science and Systems.  She recently participated in her first hackathon in Seattle.  The “Students of Color Hackathon” was held at the social media company’s local campus. This screenshot shows how computer-mediated cropping could significantly reduce video file size. Image courtesy Jumana Karwa

Karwa and her team won the event with a program that takes large files and coverts them into something smaller and easier to access.  “We were able to bring down the order of magnitude of compression to a massive level so that anyone, even with a 2G speed, can easily download video and watch it,” said Karwa. 

The implications for this technology stretch beyond entertainment to support education in the form of online classes or conferences.  “[With this program] students in other parts of the world do not have to worry that they don’t have the connectivity or if they consume too much bandwidth that it would be too expensive,” said Karwa.

The other innovation Karwa’s work reflects is the hackaton, a powerful application-development methodology that has emerged as an important new tool for teaching and learning.

Hackathons are a mix of laboratory, classroom, and endurance challenge.  Karwa and her team had 17 hours to create their program. This meant staying up all night and only breaking for snacks or an occasional trip to the bathroom.  The experience didn’t seem to faze Karwa.  “The whole environment of being around students who want to do something different is amazing,” she said.

Hackathons have been around since the late 1990s but didn’t gain in popularity until a few years ago.  UW Tacoma recently hosted one with Microsoft. These events not only encourage innovation, they're also a great way to teach and engage students.  “You’re having to take everything you’ve learned and actually think for yourself about how and why this will work,” said Andrew Fry, who is the assistant director of industry partnerships at UW Tacoma’s Institute of Technology.UW Tacoma students participate in a recent Microsoft hackathon. Photo by Cody Char

Events like hackathons are part of the Institute’s overall commitment to helping students be more competitive in the marketplace – an approach that seems to be working.  Launched in 2001, the Institute has grown from a few dozen students to more than 800. Major players in the tech world have started to take notice.   “Microsoft, Facebook, Cisco, Amazon, Boeing - you name it and they’re fighting over our students,” said Fry.

Besides being a good forum to test new skills, hackathons are also a way for students to branch out of their comfort zones.  Karwa went to the Facebook event by herself and needed to network in order to form a team.  This meant introducing herself to a room full of strangers.  “People should not limit themselves by their fear or inhibitions,” said Karwa.  “First give it one try at least and see what it’s like then decide.”

Karwa’s philosophy has paid off.  She and her teammates will travel to the grand finale hackathon at the Facebook campus in Menlo Park, California this November.  In the meantime they are looking to secure funding for their compression program.

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Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / February 22, 2016
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu