Pearl Hacks 2015

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300 young women from around the nation traveled to the Triangle last weekend to participate in the second annual Pearl Hacks, a weekend hackathon at UNC-Chapel Hill created by a student with a mission to get more women excited about technology. 

The event was designed to create a welcoming environment for women in high school, college or graduate school to work together and further their knowledge of computer science, coding and programming in multiple formats and platforms. Its brainchild was UNC senior in computer science and graphic design majors, Maegan Clawges.

Clawges founded Pearl Hacks last year after a pivotal moment in her own life. She was at a different hackathon when her close female friend was sexually assaulted. 

"We looked around at the event and it really opened my eyes and I realized there were no women there,” Clawges said. 

She wanted to get more women in the room at these events, so she began to invite friends to join her. But most declined—though they had interest in technology, they didn’t feel comfortable spending an entire weekend working in a room with mostly men. So Clawges took action, and in 2014 hosted the first Pearl Hacks, drawing 150 young women who dreamt up these 26 projects. She raised money and brought on sponsors like Google (where she interned in 2014), Cisco, Pebble and Red Hat to provide mentors, support and global-in-scope prizes. This year, for an event double in size, her boss from a Microsoft internship, Program Manager Lead Dona Sarkar, agreed to give a keynote address.

“Pearl Hacks is all about marketing to my female friends who absolutely can do this, and if given the right resources, can make amazing things,” Clawges said. 

Credit: Pearl Hacks

The High School Hacks

There was a key theme at this year's event—many student teams developed programs and applications that empowered women with information about their sexual health or helped them protect themselves from sexual assault and domestic violence. 

The “Pearl Runner” team of high school students created an iOS app that integrated sexual health lessons into a video game. The avatar in the game navigated around different diseases while jumping to collect contraception. The students designed the game for girls after learning about gender discrimination perpetuated by current avenues of sex education available in most schools. The team included Sharon Lin of New York and Amy Sorto, Karla Rodriguez and Silvia Jaramillo-Regalado of New Jersey. 

“Our objective was to get rid of the taboo on sexual education through a fun and interactive game,” Lin said. 

Added Sorto: “It’s a more humorous and better way to show young girls who may not be interested in all the facts—but it’s a good way to bring light to the issues.” 

The students hope their game could be utilized to educate students about sexual health in areas where accurate sex education is lacking. 

“One of the reasons we thought this was so important was because a lot of states don’t provide sufficient sexual health education—only 22 states are actually required to by law,” Jaramillo-Regalado said. 

Pearl Runner won the Google High School Hack Award, which included guaranteed interviews for the Google Computer Science Summer Institute, a three-week institute for graduating high school seniors interested in technology in Mountain View, CA. 

The College Hacks

Another team interested in women’s safety was Accio, which included four students from Georgia Tech University. They designed an application that helps groups of women traveling to stay together. The users can set a radius around them, and the app will send an alert if someone in the group leaves the “safe zone” or or is in danger. 
The team included three juniors in computer sciences Janvi Chawla, Tina Ho and Piya Saetiew and junior in mechanical engineering Vicki Shaw. 

 “The purpose of the app is to try to help women specifically when they go to a place they’re unfamiliar with—they can go and sync with their friends phones so they can see in real time where they are if they get separated or lost,” Shaw said. 
What separates the Accio app from existing GPS location mobile apps on the market is that it works in the background and can be set to update the user’s location every 15 minutes—that's how it determines that a person has gone out of the radius. The team won second place overall and receives an all expenses paid trip to the HackingEDU hackathon in San Francisco this summer. 

Another team interested in preventing sexual assault was HelpMe, a group of students from the Duke computer engineering graduate program who designed an Android application that works in tandem with a user's Pebble watch to detect danger. Team members Claire Yuan, Tara Gu, Chuan Xia, and Xiaoqin Zhu came up with an algorithm that used the Pebble Watch accelerometer to detect free falling motion. When the watch detects its user has fallen, it will use Bluetooth to send a text message alert to a pre-set emergency contact through the user’s Android device. The user can also hold down the select button on the Pebble Watch if in danger and the watch will send the GPS location to the same emergency contact within seconds. 

“We want to help women,” Xia said. “Sexual assaults are happening on campuses all over the states. It’s an issue that has attracted a lot of attention lately and we really wanted to address that.” 

Xia’s teammate Gu explained how her personal experience also inspired the design of the HelpMe mobile app. “When I was younger, I grew up in China, and my Mom was always very concerned with my safety,” Gu said. “If children run into situations that they want to communicate with their parents but they’re not able to take out their phone, we wanted to find a way for them to do that very easily.” 

HelpMe Team at Pearl Hacks
The HelpMe team of Duke University students took home first prize at Pearl Hacks. Credit: Karima Boukary/ExitEvent

The team went on to win first place overall for the event. They'll receive an all expenses paid trip to Global Hackathon Seoul in Seoul, South Korea this July. 

The proud founder

After the event, Clawges happily congratulated all of the participants who cheered when she walked onto the stage. Although she is graduating this May and will be moving on from UNC, she has great hopes for the future of Pearl Hacks. 

“I’m excited to see how it will change and grow. I hope that the organizers will have a vision that reaches other girls,” Clawges said. She also hopes that each and every participant leaves the event feeling inspired to move forward in the technology and computer science field. She shares several 2014 success stories in her portfolio.

“Computer science is a field where you can learn how to do anything that you want to do just by looking online or working with a mentor,” Clawges said. “There is no barrier to entry. You can sit down and in 24 hours go from not knowing anything to making a website and winning a prize. Whatever you are passionate about, whatever you want to be, computer science will help you do that better.”