Teams benefit from real-time interaction with product design experts

On Saturday, January 11, more than 60 students from six different University of Chicago graduate and undergraduate programs convened in the many nooks and crannies of the Harris School of Public Policy’s Keller Center. They were competing in Harris Public Policy’s first ever Harris<Hack>, a two-day event designed to give students the opportunity to build products with potential to influence conversations around policy creation, and aid policymakers in implementing their goals. 

Product ideas ranged from a resources database for policymakers to an automated reply system for admissions officers at institutions of higher education to use in order to save time on rote correspondence and focus instead on incoming students needs.

The event was conceived and organized by Jane Thu Giang Le, director of analytics for Harris Student Affairs, and her Data Analytics teammates. While working towards a master degree in computer science as a part-time student, Jane realized the hackathon concept so familiar to students in computer science programs, one heavy on programming and coding, could be adapted for students at Harris.

Jane Thu Giang Le
Jane Thu Giang Le, who organized Harris<Hack>

“It used to be that when you heard the word ‘hackathon,’ programming and coding immediately came to mind,” Thu Giang Le said. “But I know a lot of non-tech driven companies that conduct hackathons to rethink the way they do business.”

She gave the example of a hotel chain hosting a hackathon in order to come up with ways to better engage with customers.

"The idea of students creating something tangible is the focus for this Hackathon, but I wanted students to know that it doesn't have to be done through programming,” Thu Giang Le continued. “They can do physical prototypes [or] prototypes that don’t require coding. It's really not just about programming.”

In addition to students from Harris, teams from the Booth School of Business, the Masters Program in Computer Science, the Master of Science in Analytics at the Graham School, the Booth School of Business, the Masters in Computational Social Science and several undergraduate students all participated. 

Students at the Hack-a-thon
Students at work, planning and developing prototypes

“A lot of Harris students have creative and practical thoughts of building products, but some of them may not be super skilled at programming to make it happen,” said Rachel Huang, assistant director of data analytics. “So we changed the expectation. It's fine that you can’t code. If you can provide a prototype — as long as it's detailed — you can participate in the event.”

Huang said the event organizers opened the event to other degree programs because they wanted Harris students to connect with students who might otherwise be more natural coders and product designers.

Participating students entered or were grouped with three to five others for a total of 12 teams. On Friday, January 10, programming began with a workshop by William Gossin, associate director of student leadership development at Harris.

“The workshop was about design thinking and user centered design,” said AK Alilonu, an undergraduate student majoring in computer science and public policy. “Execution can completely transform the [original] idea. I thought that was really cool.”

Throughout the two days of Harris<Hack>, Alilonu and his teammates built a website geared toward public school teachers in Chicago that would allow them to view how their pensions would change in coming years based on certain proposed policies.

A few teams were formed before signing up. Most of the teammates did not know each other prior to signing up for Harris<Hack>, and  were paired up due to their commonality of interests and area of study.

The Outlanders, comprised of five Harris students, signed up together and built a platform to centralize information such as relevant research and previously made policies for local policymakers.  This hub would help policymakers  develop more efficient and effective action plans, by making it easier for them to access existing information and resources.  .

“This is putting what we've learned in classrooms into action,” said Xia Fanmei, MPP ‘21. “We learn so much about policymaking, and some of the constraints that policymakers have to face, and now we are trying to solve some — if not all — of their problems.”

One of the Outlanders advisors throughout the competition was Vas Vasiliadis, chief customer officer for Globus, a University of Chicago-run research data management software service company. With his background in product management and product development, Vasiliadis said he was quite impressed with what the students were able to come up with. Regarding the Outlanders’ platform in particular, Vasiliadis said he thought the framework was something that could directly benefit Globus, as well. 

“They are tackling a problem that a lot of our researchers face, which is sort of aggregating all the available data,” Vasiliadis said. “In [the Outlanders’ case], they're looking at data related to policy, but then making it accessible to the larger community through some decent search mechanisms and websites that present it in a way that people can easily consume.”

In addition to benefiting from one-on-one interaction with product design experts, three winning student groups took home Amazon gift cards. The first place team, “ATeam,” as they called themselves, was also awarded the opportunity to consult with Tom Schenk Jr., a researcher, author, and currently the director of analytics at KPMG, where he leads the smart city and government analytics practice. 

Members of the ATeam, four Harris students, included Tianming (Timmy) Yang, Chengqi (Cal) Fang, Rong (Audrey) Bao, Tianjun Song and Xiangwen Sun. They developed an application called Leaf to boost down-to-earth actions to combat climate change. This application allows you to trace, compare and manage your carbon footprint account.