Hack4Impact students reflect on their semester nonprofit projects

Eesha+Barua%2C+sophomore+in+Engineering%2C+pictured+in+a+Santa+hat%2C+prepares+a+product+demonstration+from+7000+Languages+at+the+Fall+2022+Hack4Impact+UIUC+Product+Showcase.

Michael Bales

Eesha Barua, sophomore in Engineering, pictured in a Santa hat, prepares a product demonstration from 7000 Languages at the Fall 2022 Hack4Impact UIUC Product Showcase.

By Michael Bales, Staff Writer

As 2022 came to a close, students from Hack4Impact UIUC reflected on their four-semester projects working with nonprofits across the world and how they applied their software skills for social good. 

Hack4Impact UIUC is an organization that connects software programmers to nonprofits and other socially responsible businesses. Together, students and businesses develop tools that nonprofits can utilize to further their mission. 

Students worked with either KadaKareer, a community platform in the Philippines that is working to close the education gap for underprivileged students, 7000 Languages, which works to maintain the survival of languages at risk of going extinct, Brink, which aims to make voting accessible for those with disabilities, or Coko, an open source community publishing platform.

“It’s going to be really exciting to see some cool projects that everyone is working on,” said Hack4Impact co-director Amit Sawhney at the start of their product showcase in December. The event featured a presentation by each of the four groups to display what they spent their semester working on, as well as a chance to reflect on the experience with their respective organizations and teams. 

Work during the semester is a large time commitment, with team members having as many as eight hours of meetings per week, which excludes the hours of work spent developing the actual product. This is also on top of students’ regular academic schedules. 

But now, with four months of work behind them, members considered what their teams accomplished and what they learned along the way. 

KadaKareer: Bridging an education gap

According to the most recent State of Global Learning Poverty report, the Philippines had a learning poverty rate of 90.9%, which is defined as the “inability to read age appropriate texts by the age of 10.” 

With many students getting a slower start to education than the global average, KadaKareer is an important resource that helps students learn new skills, build work experience and be competitive in the job market. 

“Kadakareer was birthed out of this idea of bridging these major education gaps in the Philippines,” said Praneeth Guduguntla, junior in Engineering and product manager at Hack4Impact. “A lot of students don’t have access to the information or just knowledge of certain careers.”

One of the primary ways the organization gives students new opportunities is through a virtual apprenticeship program, which connects students with partner companies that give them jobs to complete over a five-week period with the intention of building work experience.

The program existed before it began work with Hack4Impact, but it used to operate through several platforms outside of the KadaKareer such as email, Discord and Google Drive. 

“We wanted to condense those into one platform to make it easier both on the company, KadaKareer and the students,” said Maxine Tam, sophomore in FAA.

As the sole product designer in the Hack4Impact KadaKareer team, Tam’s job is to make a navigable experience for users. Now, with the team already beginning user testing, Tam is able to see some of the results of her work.

“It was awesome just to see people already starting to use it and understanding the user flow,” Tam said. 

She added that not only was seeing user testing rewarding for her personally, but it also helped build the team’s confidence in the product.

“We’re planning on doing more user testing once the (developers) are actually packaging it and finishing up,” Tam said. “But so far, it’s been pretty good.”

Although Tam is a designer, designing is not her sole purpose for doing the project. 

“My parents are from the Philippines, so the project is very personal to me,” Tam said. “My parents were both kind of like, in the underserved — not super rich.” 

Tam’s personal connection to not only the Philippines but to Kadakareer’s intended user base as well made the project an easy first choice to work on coming into the semester.

“I ranked (Kadakareer) as first, and I made sure to make the others at least like three or below,” Tam said. “It’s been a great experience.” 

As the partnership between KadaKareer and Hack4Impact comes to an end, Guduguntla, Tam and the rest of the team will be wrapping up user testing. Then, the product will be handed over to KadaKareer.

7000 Languages: Keeping culture alive

“There are approximately 7000 languages in the world — approximately half of which are in danger of falling entirely out of use,” said Product Manager Yogi Koppol, senior in Engineering and LAS, during his team’s showcase at the December event. “So, 7000 languages work to address this issue by working directly with these communities to create free courses that are published online.”

Hack4Impact has been working with 7000 Languages for a full year to build an app that enables users to both create language courses and learn from those courses. This past semester, Koppol’s team focused on the learning aspect of the app, creating interactive activities that are responsive to the user as well as easy to navigate. 

Features necessary to make a user-friendly learning experience included matching audio and text, associating pictures with new words and built-in navigators to track user progress. 

“To be able to go from like, Duolingo, to creating your own app from the back end (instead of experiencing them as a user) was really a different direction and has gotten me to view a lot of the apps that I use now in that light,” said Software Developer Eesha Barua, sophomore in Engineering. 

Though Barua joined the 7000 Languages team only this semester, she was already aware of the importance of language revival.

“A lot of cultures associated with languages are dying as people realize that there’s a political and economic advantage to learning English,” Barua said. “So linguistically, English is really a black hole where endangered languages die.”

As the world becomes a more economically connected place, less commonly used languages are falling by the wayside, with a language losing its last speaker every two weeks. This is happening everywhere, including in the U.S., where at least 200 previously spoken Native American languages have gone extinct

“Language is a sediment, I think, of an entire human culture,” Barua said. ”So oftentimes, it’s been used as a tool to erase cultures.” 

In the process of fighting that erasure, Barua said Hack4Impact has had an impact thanks to the experience she got working on the technical side of things. 

“Project-based learning is so incredibly valuable (in computer science),” she said. “I think it’s hard when I was a student without (Hack4Impact) to be able to apply my skills to something.” 

The combination of working in computer science while having a positive impact in the linguistics field was valuable for Barua. For her, the cherry on top was the culture of Hack4Impact itself. 

“It’s a lot of like, ‘Yeah, let’s be super productive,’ and ‘Let’s have fun while we’re doing it,’” Barua said. “It was an enriching experience.”

Brink: For a more accessible democracy 

“Brink really aims to make the democratic process more accessible,” said Archna Sobti, junior in Engineering and a Hack4Impact product manager. “That’s kind of like the tagline, but what that really means is making sure that information about candidates and workplaces is available to people who have visual impairments.”

In the 2020 election, 59.2% of registered voters with visual impairments cast a ballot, which is 8.3% lower than the non-visually impaired voter population. According to Brink, this disparity is due to a number of reasons, including inaccessible information about candidates and issues or inadequate access to voting machines. 

However, this data only considers those already registered to vote. Brink cites a “lack of accessible voter registration methods” as another major voting obstacle. 

“A lot of websites, whether they’re from the state or whether they’re candidate websites talking about what they believe in — those usually aren’t screen reader accessible,” Sobti said. 

Brink and Hack4Impact are changing this by creating a website with a screen reader where users can receive assistance in aspects such as voter registration and finding polling places.

While creating the screen reader is a large focus, Sobti and the team also consider design choices for a range of visual impairments.

“I think some of the other things, you know, are people who might have contrast (difficulties) who aren’t able to distinguish different colors from each other,” Sobti said. 

To combat this, the team displayed an option from their website demo that featured bright yellow text over a black background. It was a stark contrast to the typical whites, grays and blacks native to most of the internet, but its potential to assist those with poor vision was glaring.

Sobti figured this out by talking to those who would benefit from such features.

“I talked to people who maybe can’t look at the screen too long,” Sobti said. “Or they have to use dark mode all the time because it just causes eye strain.”

In most cases, Sobti said these people usually just have to deal with such strain, but with Brink, “we tried to make it as easy as possible for users.”

This semester was Sobti’s fifth semester with Hack4Impact, but even two and half years in, she said she is still gaining more from each new project.

“After having this experience, I can thoroughly say I really do care about making sure that websites are accessible,” Sobti said. “ I think Hack4Impact kind of teaches you a lot about different things you can care about.”

Coko: Publishing for everyone

“We build, you publish.” That is the motto of Coko — a nonprofit organization whose platform gives users tools for research paper publication. 

Coko is able to create these tools by using surplus from companies who contract them, creating what they describe as a “robinhood model.” However, the tools have room to develop, which is where Hack4Impact enters the picture. 

“So, one of the main focuses is just to make the (review status) information clear,” said Zora Zhang, sophomore in Engineering and Hack4Impact product manager.  

Zhang said the revision process can be long. 

“An author would submit a manuscript — a rough draft — and then (the editor) would invite some other reviewers to review it,” Zhang said. “Then, the reviewer will give recommendations on whether or not to accept, revise or reject the paper and give their feedback. The author (would) revise it, and then the editor gives a final decision.”

Zhang said that before Hack4impact began working with Coko, users were unable to see the review status of their manuscripts. But with one of several Hack4Impact additions, users will be able to see their paper’s status, which Zhang believes will “kind of move on to support the workflow and push it forward.”

Zhang and the team will see if the user experience matches their expectation as they begin user testing this month, an important part of the job that Zhang finds “really meaningful.”

“Hack4Impact really is a space where we can see tangible impact and build tangible products that will actually affect other people and be used by other people,” Zhang said.

This can be a stark contrast to typical coursework, which Zhang said can sometimes be very theoretical. She also added that working with Coko and Hack4Impact “is a really great place for me to kind of use my skills that I learned from computer science.”

For Zhang, Hack4Impact projects such as working with Coko have given her working experience far beyond her expectations as a sophmore in college.

“As a student you would not imagine that you will be able to build something for researchers to use,” Zhang said. “But there it is.”

Although each of the four projects that Hack4Impact students worked on deal with vastly different issues, the students all work towards Hack4Impact’s core goal of contributing social good — or as they put it on their website, “Using technology as a medium for advancing public interest.”

The commitment to this goal is why no matter who they work with, Hack4Impact students from every team can look back at a semester and be proud of what they’ve achieved.

“As long as I know that the work I’m doing (that) I’m putting my hard effort into is impacting actual people, I will be happy,” Sobti said. “I think that’s all that matters.”

 

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