A group of Stony Brook Uninversity students won a hackathon last month by building an app called ToiletGo. The was bulit using an Arduino board, like the one shown above. JAN VANTOMME/FLICKR VIA CC BY-NC 2.0

A group of Stony Brook University students won a hackathon last month by building an app called ToiletGo. It was built using an Arduino board, like the one shown above. JAN VANTOMME/FLICKR VIA CC BY-NC 2.0

More than 100 college students participated in the inaugural Hack@CEWIT, the first hackathon at Stony Brook University’s Center of Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology, from Feb. 17 to 19.

These students didn’t hack computer systems in the traditional sense. Instead, they marshaled their computer science skills toward engineering innovative, useful software.

“You can take a class and learn about how paint works for years, but if you never actually paint, you’re not gonna be an accomplished artist,” Jonathan Gottfried, one of the keynote speakers and co-founder of the official student hackathon league, Major League Hacking, said. “That’s the same thing for writing software.”

Using materials borrowed from CEWIT, the students had 43 hours to produce innovative prototypes of apps and software.

The first-place team that won the $2,000 grand prize created ToiletGo, a web app that uses a hardware system, Wi-Fi, a web server and motion sensors to alert people to where the nearest available public toilet is in real time.

In order for the app to work, a bathroom must have motion sensors placed inside the room. The moment a person walks into that room, a passive infrared (PIR) motion sensor activates and alerts app users. Then, when a person enters an individual stall, an ultrasonic sensor in the stall detects that motion and sends out another alert, indicating that the stall is occupied. Meanwhile, the dormant sensor in an unoccupied stall indicates to app users that a toilet is available.

The team wants to develop its web app demo – made of cardboard boxes and tape – and software into a functioning mobile app, said Hanpeng Jiang, a senior electrical engineering major and one of the four team members.

“People could just take their phone out and open our app. They could see, ‘Oh, there is one toilet maybe three streets away,’” Jiang said. He worked with fellow Stony Brook students Richard Huang, Shen Shao and Tingyi Zhao, who are all junior computer science majors.

Students were not only able to collaborate with their peers, but also had the opportunity to connect with company recruiters at the hackathon.

“We kind of see [hackathons] as an evolution of the traditional career fair,” John Saunders, a marketer for one of the event sponsors, Softheon, said. “At a hackathon, you can show off your skills in real time with real world applications that companies can potentially put on the marketplace.”

Six other teams each won $500 for their applications, including a parking app for SBU student drivers called “Know Before You Go.” The app is designed to detect available parking spots around campus in real time, according to the online project description. It could potentially help the university’s roughly 15,900 commuter students – nearly 62 percent of the undergraduate and graduate student population, according to Fall 2016 data from the SBU Office of Institutional Research.

“You have to get on campus literally 8 o’clock, 9 o’clock [in the morning], even to get a spot,” Brendan Zotto, a sophomore electrical engineering major and one of the app developers, said.

Despite the innovation diversity, only 25 percent of the 130 registered hackers were female, including Melanie Logan, a freshman computer science major who developed “PhotoFun,” a program that captures photos and videos.

But for many of the student hackers, their chief concern right after Hack@CEWIT was regaining lost hours of sleep and, for those who won prize money, debating how to spend their reward.

“I think I will buy dinner for my parents,” Jiang, an international student, said. Since they live in Beijing, China, that might be a difficult feat. “So maybe a year later,” he said with a chuckle.