LauzHack – an online hackathon held by an EPFL student association in early April – proved to be a big hit. Over 100 project teams worked day and night to develop applications for mitigating the effects of the coronavirus outbreak. Three of the applications, including one that makes it easier to keep in touch with the elderly, were selected for an award through a public vote.
The 600 people who took part in LauzHack performed minor miracles in just 72 hours, thanks to an unprecedented cross-disciplinary collaboration. Thanks to its fully online format, this hackathon attracted three times as many participants as usual, and participants were freed from the constraints of working on site. Project teams collaborated via a shared communication platform and benefitted from an additional day as well as advice from experts from a range of fields spanning materials science, life science, economics and finance.
The three award-winning applications were selected through an online vote. They all have one thing in common – providing practical solutions to pandemic-related problems, whether by reaching out to lonely elderly people, helping parents home-school their children or diagnosing Covid-19 remotely.
The first application, called 1lettre1sourire, was already under development before the hackathon began. Through the application’s website, users can send letters to nursing-home residents who may feel isolated from friends and family. The second application, called Quome, is designed for parents who may not have the time or knowledge to help their children with their schoolwork. Quome draws on a team of math students and teachers as well as university professors with experience in online teaching. The website provides a series of exercises with personalized explanations. The third application is Coughvid, a website and mobile app developed at EPFL’s Embedded Systems Laboratory under the HelpfulETH initiative. Coughvid can give users an initial indication of whether they might have Covid-19 based on the sound of their cough. The system was set up during the hackathon but the developers still need to expand their database to make the program more reliable.
Hackathons are usually geared towards computer programing, but this one showed that the format can be used in a variety of other fields too. Other inventions coming out of LauzHack were a reusable face mask, a system for disinfecting shoe soles, and a model habitat suited specifically to pandemics. The awards – in the form of vouchers – were largely symbolic, but they did give the three project teams a boost in terms of continuing their development work and increasing their visibility.
The projects created during LauzHack will be developed further with varying degrees of involvement by EPFL. Some EPFL students will use them as a basis for their semester projects, while others may build prototypes once the campus is open again. Pierre Vandergheynst, EPFL’s Vice President for Education, took part in the LauzHack both as an expert and a driving force behind the event and was impressed with what he saw. “The participants learned how to use the resources available and turn them into concrete solutions incredibly fast,” says Vandergheynst. “It was clear that bringing together people from several disciplines produced more innovative ideas.” This approach may be repeated in future years – but on campus – to help students come up with semester projects.
The LauzHack organizers were also pleased with this event, especially since its fully online format meant they didn’t have to worry about logistics and equipment. “We had time to follow the creative process and even give suggestions based on our expertise,” says Blagovesta Kostova, president of the LauzHack student club, and Tatiana Porté, its communications officer.