Innovating for Smarter Cities

Students presented novel ideas to improve community relations and government services at the Smart Cities Hackathon.

March 26, 2019


Students present their proposal for a new kind of solar panel at the 2019 Smart Cities Hackathon held in the Marvin Center over the weekend. (Kristen Mitchell/ GW Today)

By Kristen Mitchell

From apps to help drivers find open parking spaces on city streets to plans for solar panels that rotate to follow the sun’s rays, student innovators came up with new ways to use technology for societal good at the 2019 Smart Cities Hackathon.

The 36-hour event was put on by Hackital, a George Washington University student group that promotes hackathons, and Smart Cities @ GW. The event brought together college students from across the Washington, D.C., area to participate in workshops, hear from expert speakers and develop projects that fit the “Smart Cities” framework of digitizing city services and infrastructures to improve government-civilian interactions and boost economic development.

Allison Robbins, a sophomore majoring in computer science and graphic design, said the event was a good opportunity to bring students with interdisciplinary interests together and promote innovation across fields.

“Engineering students, computer science students are good at implementing things, but I think if you combine with other disciplines you get really good ideas and really cool projects that might make a bigger impact,” she said.

About 200 students registered for the event, including students who traveled from the University of Maryland and Rutgers University. After spending Friday and Saturday in workshops learning new web development and programming skills, student teams presented their proposals to the larger group Sunday afternoon.

The team that won the award for the top sustainable project proposed solar panels that would move and react to the sun’s placement. This would optimize the panels’ energy storage because they would always be taking in as much sun as possible.

The team that won for the best use of machine learning proposed an app that would promote a holistic, analytical approach to personal health. The team gave a demonstration for how users could input their own health data into an app that would pinpoint certain physical and mental health themes over time.

The team who won the top prize for implementation proposed an app that would help people quickly buy train tickets online, particularly the elderly and those who are less tech savvy.

Teams also were awarded first-, second- and third-place prizes by Major League Hacking (MLH), a company that operates a league for student hackathons and co-sponsored the event.

  • The first-place team proposed using image recognition to regulate paid parking spaces on a city street and automatically mail out traffic tickets to drivers of cars parked too long.  
  • The second-place proposal was for a centralized online platform that cities could use to get more people involved in community service and support for funding and implementing new ideas.
  • The third-place team developed an app that could be used by a city to route resident complaints and non-urgent concerns to the appropriate departments. For example, a large pothole could be reported to the app and then that complaint would be routed to the transportation department.

Lex McCusker, director of GW’s student entrepreneurship programs, closed the event on Sunday by encouraging students to keep developing their ideas. GW students should keep working on their projects in order to participate in next year’s New Venture Competition, he said. He also encouraged students to bring their ideas back to other events put on by the Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, a co-sponsor of the hackathon.

“Technology is a means not an end, so whatever cool hack you come up with today, it’s only as good as your ability to implement it in a way to create value for some other person, whether it’s a smart city, a community or an individual,” he said. “Push toward implementation because that’s where the real value is.”