How Students Used Bots to Solve Problems at 4th Annual J-School Hackathon

    by Adrianna Owens
    March 1, 2017
    Left to right: Shah Ahmed, Hayleigh Hayhurst, Sophie Proctor, Kelly Jasiura and Laura Davis pose after taking first place. Photo by Adrianna Owens.

    Journalism students from across the country used bots and chatbots last weekend to “hack” solutions to problems ranging from news consumption for the dyslexic to money management for millennials.

    Produced by MediaShift and the University of Nevada-Reno’s Reynolds School of Journalism, the 4th Annual J-School Hackathon at the Innevation Center brought together students from 11 schools who met to conceptualize a startup including a news bot or chatbot from scratch and pitch it to a panel of judges.

    Mark Glaser, founder and executive editor of MediaShift, said part of the Hackathon is getting students to work with peers from different schools.


    “The teamwork aspect is always important, as is learning to work with people you’ve never met before,” he said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many students who don’t get this kind of training at their schools.”

    Donica Mensing, associate dean of the Reynolds School, said she was excited to participate in the Hackathon as a facilitator.

    “Having the opportunity to bring people together in this way really helps position the Reynolds School as a leader in journalism education,” she said.

    Hackathon Team Working

    Team “Open Smile” works on developing their bot to help travelers make the most of their foreign experiences.

    The power of a team hack

    Students were teamed up with students from other schools across the nation including UC Berkeley, the University of Montana, the University of North Carolina and Arizona State University.

    Courtney McKimmey, a junior at the University of Nevada, Reno, said the team aspect helped her group come up with better ideas. The team pitched a bot that would unscramble news for people with dyslexia and make news more digestible.

    “I learned how to approach solving problems from teammates that I wouldn’t have thought of before,” she said. “The most rewarding part of this weekend was the diversity of people and ideas.”

    Hackathon 2017 Ice Breaker

    Donica Mensing, the facilitator for “Team Open Smile,” puts her team at ease by starting the weekend with an ice breaker.

    Business models, branding and design

    While working toward solving unique problems through the development of bots, the students were guided by key speakers, floating mentors and team facilitators.

    Keynote speakers talked to students about how to market, create and monetize their bots as well as how to pitch their ideas to judges (who were the equivalent to investors).

    Celeste LeCompte, director of business development at ProPublica, talked to students about why monetization matters for their bots and how to get people to give them money for their product.

    Saying that advertising is only a small part of the solution for online revenues, she emphasized that you can’t get any money from people if you don’t ask for it.

    Among the floating mentors was Katherine Hepworth, assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, who teaches courses in graphic design, visual communications and user experience.

    Hepworth floated between teams, and gave advice on logo design, user experience and business models. She stopped by a team that focused on a bot that gives travelers ideas of what to do on flight layovers.

    Every team also had a team facilitator who was there to help foster and grow the students’ ideas.

    Among the facilitators was Amara Aguilar, associate professor of professional practice in digital journalism at USC Annenberg, who led McKimmey’s team, and gave a talk about human-centered design on Saturday morning.

    McKimmey said Aguilar was an asset to their team and helped focus the teammates, who ended up with a second place finish.

    Kelly Jasiura, a senior at the University of North Carolina, stressed the importance of her team facilitator, Laura Davis, assistant professor of professional practice at USC Annenberg.

    “Our mentor definitely helped lead us to creating a great chatbot,” Jasiura said. “She kept us on track within our ideas and didn’t pass judgement on them.”

    Hackathon 2017 First Place

    The first place winners take their medals as they talk about their struggles in conceptualizing their financial planning bot, Green Guide.

    Chatbot for financial planning wins the Hackathon

    A team that pitched a financial planning chatbot, Green Guide, designed to be friendly and accessible for Generations Y and Z, took first place.

    Jasiura, a member of the winning team, explained their bot as something that can be used by a younger generation to “take on an adult problem.”

    During their pitch, they emphasized the issue of millennials or the younger generation failing to plan for their future financially. Their bot would tackle the problem by giving the user tools for financial success, like advice on savings or by sending users entertaining, motivational GIFs.

    Sophie Proctor, junior at Point Loma Nazarene University, said she was surprised to have won, and said the user-friendly interface of her team’s chatbot is what helped them succeed.

    She also said the experience will push her to further look into chatbot technology.

    “I am definitely very interested in problem-solving through chatbots now,” she said. “I came into this weekend not knowing what to expect at all but after working with my group and developing a startup that could actually be used, I think it’s something that I am going to explore in the future.”

    List of teams:

    • Facilitator: Donica Mensing, University of Nevada, Reno
    • Facilitator: Danielle Cervantes, Point Loma Nazarene University
      • Jocelyn Apodaca, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
      • James Tyner, USC Annenberg
      • Arielle Taramasco, Point Loma Nazarene University
      • Maddy Neale, San Francisco State University
        • This team worked on developing a bot, Plover, to assist people while traveling to new places.
    • Facilitator: Amara Aguilar, USC Annenberg
      • Sandeep Pal, UC Berkeley
      • Alexis Allston, UNC
      • Courtney McKimmey, University of Nevada, Reno
      • Emily Liu, Arizona State
        • This team worked on developing a chatbot, LexiLeads, that would digest news differently for people with dyslexia.
        • Second Place
    • Facilitator: Gi Woon Yun, University of Nevada, Reno
      • Nicole Tancredi, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
      • Randolph Diamond, Crain Communications
      • Kayla Robertson, University of Montana
      • Wyatt Williams, University of Nevada, Reno
        • This team worked to develop a bot, Lenny Layover, that helps users make the most of their travel layovers.
        • Honorable Mention
    • Facilitator: Laura Davis, USC Annenberg
      • Kelly Jasiura, UNC
      • Sophie Proctor, Point Loma Nazarene University
      • Shah Ahmed, University of Nevada, Reno
      • Hayleigh Hayhurst, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
        • This team worked to develop a chatbot, Green Guide, that helps millennials manage their finances and save for their future.
        • First place
    • Facilitator: Ryan Thornburg, UNC
      • Yifei Liu, UC Berkeley
      • Raul Lara, UC Santa Cruz
      • Alex Ramos, Galena High School
      • Jackson Wagner, University of Montana
        • This team worked to develop a bot, PACS, that provided concierge services through a bot for hotels that couldn’t afford to hire a concierge.
    • Facilitator: Courtney Cowgill, University of Montana
      • Lisa Huynh, USC Annenberg
      • Krysta Scripter, University of Nevada, Reno
      • Peter Opa, FoodforSchool.net
        • This team worked to develop a bot, Kind Eats, that would help eliminate food waste through peer-to-peer food sharing.

    Adrianna Owens is the graphic design lead at the Nevada Career Studio and the marketing intern for the University of Nevada Reno’s Research & Innovation Department.

    Tagged: bots chatbots hackathon journalism school hackathon newsbots reynolds school of journalism startup weekend university of nevada-reno

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