One Love, Project, Cause

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

As you're reading this, pause for a moment and gaze briefly through the nearest window. It's a large, fast-paced world out there, and it can be easy to overlook the problems that don't affect us directly. It's also easy to forget how simple, rewarding, and fun it can be to find solutions and help others at the same time.

Along these lines, two student organizations at the University of Southern California (USC) have teamed up to sponsor a couple of "Code For a Cause" events aimed at encouraging students to build small, open source projects that benefit a group in need. Following up on last fall's event which focused on building innovative software for the disabled, USC's ACM chapter and a student group named "Free Culture USC" recently organized a second hackathon for building software for One Laptop per Child's XO-1 laptop.

For those unfamiliar with the project, the XO-1 is a low-cost portable computer that runs entirely on open source software. The platform is completely extendable and all units come standard with a Python runtime. OLPC's goal is to equip children around the world with these special laptops so they can better "explore, experiment, and express themselves." The student organizations at USC seized upon this objective and designed a week-long event where students worked together in teams to build a new, enriching open source project for the XO-1.

After officially kicking off the event April 12th, the organizers set up daily office hours, providing several XO-1 laptops that student teams could use to test their applications. The student leaders also invited several members of a local Python user group to give a crash course on the language and answer any coding questions for the team during the development period. One week later, 8 student teams (comprised of roughly 25 students altogether) presented their open-source projects, demonstrating everything from an educational game where users solve systems of equations using images of fruit instead of variables to a more sophisticated project where mind maps are brainstormed, built, shared, and solved by recreating the relationships between nodes.

I was lucky enough to be a judge for the event, and I can't express how inspiring it was to see the teams' presentations. It's always great to see individuals come together, take on a challenge (most of the students hadn't experienced Python before the event) and not only build an awesome application but have a great time doing it. Events like this not only make for a great learning experience but also provide a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction since the end result will have a notable impact, whether it helps the blind to better interact with computers or children from around the world to learn basic algebra.

Judges and Participants from the OLPC Hackathon Celebrate Community Victory