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Hack For Her Hackathon at Google

March 18, 2013

So I’ve been bad and missed last week’s blog post, though I have a good(ish) reason - my best friend from Kenya came to visit me, and we had an insane weekend doing everything from Laser Tagging, to Basketball Gaming, to just having a great time! Anyway, time to get on to the tech. I will, sometime this week, go through and add pictures to this post - I took my big Nikon camera with me to the hackathon, and feel it prudent to share some of my photography.

Friday 8th March was International Women’s Day, and a great day for Women in Science to band together, marvel at the number of females currently in scientific positions, especially Computer Science, and discuss new ways to get more women feeling ambitious and passionate about exploring a career in the sciences. As part of the UWCSA (Undergraduate Women’s Computer Science Association) at the UofT, I took part in the Women and Ambition workshop, where we discussed the positives and negatives of being an ambitious woman, and how to build up our self esteem and confidence as being a woman in Computer Science. It was a phenomenal workshop, and we’re hoping to have a follow up to that workshop next year.

Through my twitter account @aashnisshah (you should all follow me btw), I found out about this great event that the Girls In Tech Toronto group planned. It was a Hack For Her Hackathon at… Google! The office was in Kitchner, Waterloo, which is over an hour away. The GIT were wonderful enough to provide us free transportation there and back, however this meant the bus left at 6:45 am. I slept at 3:30am, and had to be up by 5:30am in order to get there on time - I knew it would be a long day.

Once we got to the event, we got to check out parts of the office, along with the awesome slide that they had to go down, rather than taking the stairs (sadly we weren’t allowed to use it :( ). We then got some delicious breakfast, and waited around for everyone else to show up. We were meant to get into teams of 6 - 8 people, with 2 developers per team, ideally. I found two developing friends and we formed a trio, waiting for more people to show up so that we could find a marketer, designer etc. to work with. Overall we had 5 people in my group, including me. We introduced ourselves and started getting to know one another, which is always a great thing. At some point, we were discussing bringing alternate shoes to the event, so we didn’t have to trudge around in our big winter boots all day, and decided to name our group “Cushy Socks”.

The presentations then started. We had a wonderful talk from Susan Truppe the M.P. for London North Centre and the Parliamentary Secretary for Status of Women. She gave a lot of really interesting statistics, and really brought us to the problems women in tech are facing. We were then introduced to the problem by some of the GIT members. The basic problem was how to introduce technology into the shopping experience in Singapore and it’s neighbouring countries, especially considering shopping is a large part of the culture there, and consumers don’t “trust” the idea of shopping online, or through mobile tech. We were also told of some other problems facing consumers, such as the fact that many people don’t have smartphones.

We were then given a mere 3 hours to try and hack up a solution to this problem. Let me tell you, three hours is very little time. Our team started going some of the different options we could take for our solution, such as finding a way to get shoppers to buy products online to save money, while still going to actual shops, or collecting data on many of the microblog/shop sites that are currently set up throughout the areas. While these were great, we felt that they were already done to some degree, and not really hitting some of the truly important issues that people in these areas were facing. Instead, we decided to do something very different.

Our team chose to approach the problem from a different angle entirely. One big problem many people, especially in Indonesia, face, is that they don’t have smart phones or smart technology. People in Singapore and surrounding countries don’t trust online shopping either. Why not kill two birds with one stone? We thought that targeting flea markets (and similar areas, such as china town shopping areas) and introducing an SMS (Socks Messaging System, if I remember correctly) system that allowed vendors and customers to simply text a specified code (i.e. for a customer) to a number, have some back end checks and implementations to make sure everything’s ok, and that the customer has enough money, then sends confirmation texts back to both customer and vendor. The vendor can then hand over the items to the customer, and the transaction has completed successfully.

We got into the tricky situation of trying to figure out how to get money into the customers accounts, and ideally how the vendors can get the money out of their accounts at the end of the day as well. We were debating contacting banks so that we could directly access customers accounts, but this led to numerous tricky problems. Instead, we decided to use a topping up system, much like having a bus card in one of these countries, and topping it up at a 7/11 store. This introduced a third party member who would be in charge of collecting/distributing money to customers or vendors, and making sure accounts were all kept updated.

The next tough question that we were debating whilst coming up with this idea is why would people swap over to the new system? Who and how does it beneft? Our answer is that customers could ideally get discounts, and possibly even “Message blasts” from vendors telling them about great deals or if new products are in store. Secondly vendors would get paid for swapping over to the service, either by a third party, or by saving money from the entire transaction set up. And now for a third party. We discussed possibly having a large data mining company somewhat similar to Proctar and Gamble to fund this venture, and ideally collect data during the process. Depending on our final implementation, we could ideally keep track of things being sold at the market, and at what costs they were going for. Which brands are bought more often, and perhaps even shopping trends. This would be data mining and collecting at the street level - something that is impossible when flea market transactions occurred through cash transactions.

Something we said must have stuck out to the judges, as they… dramatic drum roll picked us as the winners! I was in total shock, and completely excited when they picked our group as the winners, especially since it seemed the judges didn’t like our ideas during our presentation. Each member in our group won an amazing Nexus 7 Tablet, as well as bragging rights! Sadly, my tablet doesn’t seem to be working as it came dead out of the box - I’m hoping to get in touch with someone about possibly swapping it in.. one can only hope right?

All in all, the event was simply amazing and I’m so glad that I went! It’s definitely something I would be interested in trying again! And who knows, perhaps we’ll stick together and continue working on this… and maybe someday we’ll have a working implementation of it!

I must say though, I feel like a large part of my contribution towards this solution came from my experiences living in Kenya (where we have an SMS/cash system on a much larger scale), as well as my time working in Indonesia last summer. You never know the true value of an experience like that until the benefits of such a trip creep up on you, and help you win a hackathon! It is definitely encouraging me to try and take part in more hackathons, but to also pursue my dreams of travelling everywhere!