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Undergrad Doers Take Aim At SOPA and PIPA at PennApps


Photo by Tess Rinearson

PennApps, the bi-annual tradition for engineering’s best and brightest students across the Eastern Seaboard, came to a close Sunday afternoon with top tier weekend hacks.

Packed tight in the University of Pennsylvania Towne Building, bleary-eyed students gathered from top universities including Rutgers, Carnegie Mellon, Brown, and NYU. They were anxious to show off the results of a 48-hour effort fueled by pizza, Powerade and a passion for development. Previous years boasted many awe-inspiring apps, and this year was no different.

This theme was “simplicity”, with hardcore hacker cred on the line, but this group aimed at setting the bar even higher, and succeeded.

From Parlor Tricks to Pushing Large Scale Protest

PennApps demos didn’t fall short on wow factor,  from grand prize and audience choice winner ScratchTable turning any surface into an input a working DJ interface using a contact microphone and stethoscope, to a real-time Harry Potter geolocation app Marauder’s Mapp.  Other hits with the crowd were, a Twilio Client service to help people pronounce your name correctly, as well as my personal favorite, Villustrator for rolling-your-own color schemes for vim, the discriminating developer’s text editor.

Some of the most exciting hacks from the weekend came from a challenge issued to the group before kickoff. They were encouraged to take their time and talents to fight big civic and political problems. The PennApps competitors responded with vigor, producing several hacks that aspired live long after the weekend to solve real problems.

Who Am I Supporting? injec some social responsibility into your shopping experience by exposing the political contributions of the merchants who take your business.  SEPTOPA uses SEPTA public transportation data from OpenDataPhilly to convert digital outrage over the current piracy controls bills in US Congress into serious action. Get Out The Votes loads your Facebook friends and gamifies the canvassing experience, bringing the social network gaming to person-to-person politicking.

Grassroutes Exchanges Sleep to Rail Against SOPA

Photo by Tess Rinearson

Perhaps no PennApps team slept less than Grassroutes.  Rocking a platform for people passionate about a cause to create widgets to petition their Congressional representatives, Nick, Tess and Drew‘s hackathon was only beginning with taking PennApps second place prize.

Sporting an elegant interface to create a Twilio Client widget from the browser and embed that simple, slick widget on any website, Grassroutes’ release couldn’t have been more timely landing right before this week’s online movement against SOPA and PIPA.  With one-click separating a blog’s reader from a call to Congress directly within their browsers, Grassroutes’ widget-making wizardry bundled built-in geolocation to display the appropriate representatives and height/width customization for easy plug-and-protest portability.

It didn’t take long to get noticed.  Grassroutes quickly shot to the top of Hacker News a day after release.  Several tech blogs took notice shortly thereafter.  Even Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian used a Grassroutes widget right before taking the mic at New York Tech Meetup’s rally against PIPA in front of Senator Chuck Schumer’s office in Manhattan.  Suddenly, the Grassroutes team were pushing new fixes and features, turning their hackathon weekend into a grueling launch week.

110,000 unique visitors the following day, the Grassroutes team is still at it. As of Thursday, “last night accounts for 2/5ths of my sleep for the past 6 days,” Drew Inglis tweeted about his experience. “Far beyond any of our expectations.”

The Kids Are Alright

We’re not even a week from the event and the ripples of PennApps are already being felt on a national scale.  Created and run entirely by a group of dedicated undergraduates, events like PennApps illustrate the power of an authentic combination of DIY work ethic and college student sleep deprivation.  It showcases the influence that can be achieved when web development is matched with social responsibility.

And above all, it underscores how the youth of America – when left to their own devices – can shred every estimation and expectation you hold.

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