Winners of Futurethon 2018

USC Iovine and Young Academy students battled for a better future this past weekend and emerged triumphant at Futurethon 2018: Hacking IDPs, a 48-hour hackathon hosted by Incubate USC and Blackstone Labs. The event challenged participants to build innovative and sustainable solutions for the world’s most vulnerable populations – refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). The Academy team included Abigail Africa, Andrew Hulin, Isabella James, Aidan Maddox, and two USC Marshall students.

The winning solution, “OK Bot,” is an image-based chatbot that uses pictures to help refugees, IDPs and children communicate mental trauma and emotional pain to health professionals who may not speak the native language. More importantly, OK Bot bridges the communication gap when languages, cultures, or individuals do not have the emotional vocabulary to express intense emotions.

“The idea was born out of the realization that some languages have little or no way to communicate about mental issues and that many IDPs face issues of PTSD.” said Aidan Maddox, Academy sophomore. “In children, this is often displayed by a complete lack of verbalization.”

OK Bot uses a visual communication system similar to the Picture Exchange Communication System (PEC) — an alternative/augmentative communication system that was originally developed to teach functional communication to children with limited speech. “With this we should be able to bridge the gap between trauma and language to help children cope and allow aid givers to be more informed,” said Aidan. “Pictures speak a thousand words, so if you don’t have the right words - pictures are the logical next step.”

Here, Academy sophomores Andrew Hulin and Aidan Maddox provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the highs and lows of a 48-hour hackathon. 

Once the idea was agreed upon, what the process like?
AH: The first whole day of the hackathon was completely overwhelming because it felt so hard for us to understand these very complex and present problems being faced by refugees and IDPs. Empathy is the first step of the design thinking, problem-solving mindset and this posed a significant challenge because what we had to go off of was the synthesized stories of those who have been to refugee camps or those studying events from USC. We left the first of two days without a solution and only a mild direction. On the second day, we finally clicked on our idea and from there it was a full on sprint to beat the deadline. Thankfully, we had a very balanced team and were able to distribute tasks incredibly effectively and turn in a complete pitch deck in time for presentations.

AM: After we finally came to the idea it was just a grind to get the presentation done. We all split up into small groups to complete small parts of the presentation. This was pretty much just ‘Agile’ for pitch making. Writing content for the presentation, finding example PECs, designing an example bot interaction, continuing research to bolster our pitch and creating the pitch deck itself. This process was very rushed, but thankfully we got it done in time.

What were some of the highlights of this hackathon?
AH: The synthesis of mindsets and skill sets in the hackathon was incredible. There were engineers, economists, designers, and it was the combination of these skills that really encouraged everyone to expand their thinking and look at problems in new ways to discover truly valuable solutions. This weekend was a reinforcement of the amazing things that can occur when many perspectives are brought together.

AM: The highlights were definitely getting to hear the perspectives of the speakers. Having the perspective of startups in the field as well as economists and engineers was a great insight and very helpful when it came to ideating. Furthermore, just working as a team and seeing how well we all worked together was incredible. That and of course realizing that we had somehow won didn’t hurt either.

What were some of the low points?
AH: The last hour of the hackathon was absolutely a mad scramble. Every second was taken up with working to make sure everything made sense and that we were all talking about the same problem and solution. There was no room to not completely trust that every member on the team was on the same wavelength, and thankfully everything all came together by the time we presented.

AM: Not actually having finalized what we were going to pitch on the second day was for sure a low point. We didn’t even start our pitch deck until maybe an hour and a half before the final presentation. This was super stressful and made for a mad dash. We delayed finalizing our idea to find a problem and solution we thought would truly make a difference.

Biggest takeaways or lessons learned from this hackathon? 
AH: This was a great lesson in just putting yourself out there. We met new friends, learned new things, and were able to put our education into practice and come out the other side with something very rewarding.

AM: Don’t force an idea. If it’s the right idea, you’ll know. If it’s not, move on because if you don’t you’ll run out of time.

What advice would you give to students who want to apply for Futurethon?
AH: Abraham Lincoln said it best when he said “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” When you are working on a time-based challenge, spending that extra time making sure you’re solving a valuable problem will make all the difference.

AM: Get a group of people and just do it. It’s low risk and high reward. Be open to new ideas and move quick. Oh, and you can never have too many sticky notes.


A group of students pose together in a lecture hall

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