Innovative GW Students Put Heads Together to Solve Real-Life Challenge in Hackathon Competition

Teams were given just a week to create an app to ease air travelers’ anxiety from door to gate.

Hackathon 2021
Student groups participating in a November GW hackathon had just one week to build an application that enhances airport travel for customers. (Andrew An/GW Today)
November 30, 2021

By Nick Erickson

Those who travel by plane frequently—or even infrequently—may relate to the “Home Alone” film scene when the McCallisters are desperately sprinting through a crowded airport in hopes of making the gate before it closes. Let’s face it. Getting from home to takeoff is a stressful operation.

According to a 2019 Forbes study, 63 percent of air passengers expressed that their biggest anxiety on travel day was just getting to the airport. With factors such as unpredictable traffic, ride share availability and perhaps unfamiliarity with the airport’s layout, it’s easy to see why and plausible to assume customers would be open to an application or tool to cut down their pre-flight anxiety.

At the Innovate the Future of Travel Tech: From House to Gate Hackathon in November, George Washington University students had one week to come up with such a concept. Hosted by the Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship in partnership with CirrusLabs, George Hacks and the SEAS Innovation Center, the hackathon presented students with a real-life challenge in the travel industry and asked them to come up with a way to improve the pre-flight travel experience with a new smart phone or tablet application.

Undergraduate and graduate GW students, regardless of school or major, were invited to come together for a virtual session on Nov. 12 and form teams, after which they spent a week preparing their pitches. On Nov. 19, four teams had five minutes to pitch their idea in-person to a panel of judges at the Science and Engineering Hall. The judges then had five minutes to ask questions. Teams were also instructed to make a one-minute advertisement video only four hours before it was pitch time.

"Hackathons present such unique learning opportunities for our students," said Director of Student Entrepreneurship Kate Heath, M.B.A.'10, who thanked CirrusLabs for their partnership. "These events expose them to real world problems under real world circumstances—collaborating with new people, problem solving on the fly, being creative within a given set of parameters, and presenting ideas with confidence. Students also get to interact with and learn from our sponsors, which is hugely rewarding for all involved. This is OIE programming at its best—providing high value, experiential learning opportunities that benefit students as well as our community of alumni and sponsors."

Prior to the virtual session on Nov. 12, senior organizational science and English major Winnie Lokule, senior international business and marketing major Brooke Werp, computer science graduate student Darika Shaibekova and graduate interdisciplinary business student Garrett Ramela had never met, and only met in-person for the first time the night before their pitch. That didn’t stop their team from walking away with the winning prize—$1,000 and an invitation to interview for an open position at CirrusLabs—for their app idea, called JetBridge.

The app would have customers fill out a pre-flight questionnaire based on preferred arrival time to the airport, which would help place the traveler to the TSA line closest to their gate. They also came up with a color-coordinated system, which Mr. Ramela thought of while talking with a friend on the phone just the night before, showing wait times for lines at the airport—red for long, green for short.  

“It was really just putting yourself in the customer’s shoes and saying ‘hey, what would work for me?’” Mr. Ramela said. “I would want it to be easy and simple. So, it was just kind of crazy how it morphed.” 

JetBridge’s creators incorporated a social contract within their app, as they built in convenient ways for customers to let others know of barriers ranging from traffic on the way to TSA wait times. Judges complimented that approach.

“People don’t want to be frustrated, so this is a way to come together to make things easier for all of us,” Ms. Lokule said. “By putting data in the app, we figure that you are helping not just yourself, but others. It becomes sort of a communal experience.”

In addition to the JetBridge team, SEAS students ChiYun Chen, Will Heinzel, Aaliah Amosu and School of Business student Claudio Sebastian Escudero won the $500 machine learning prize. All four competing teams earned automatic entry into the GW’s New Venture Competition in the spring and, in organizers and judges’ eyes, executed the hackathon’s mission of applying classroom work to solve a concrete challenge.   

“In my opinion, a hackathon is an amazing event from both a talent, technical and innovation perspective,” said CirrusLabs Chief Operating Officer Naeem Hussein, M.S. ’99. “We always have a certain expectation, but the creative concepts that we have seen coming out of hackathons always exceed our expectations.”

All four teams seemed to do that, as organizers noted that everyone’s pitch was compelling. Entrepreneurial-minded students can get another crack at a hackathon this academic year as George Hacks, a GW student-led nonprofit catalyzing innovation in healthcare, will host its fifth-annual 24-hour hackathon in January.

More than anything, a hackathon competition allows students from a variety of disciplines across campus to come together to tackle a real-world challenge where everyone benefits. Airport anxiety is an inclusive club, and the more ideas coming together to combat it, the merrier. 

“Having the diversity between all of our ideas just made the final product much better,” Mr. Ramela said. “That’s a big part of the reason it ended up becoming something.”

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