Organizers preparing to bring the Olympics to Los Angeles in 2028 are concerned by the declining viewership of the Games over the past decade. The number of primetime viewers on all platforms, including streaming services, has dropped dramatically, from an average of 27 million for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro to just 15.6 million for the 2020 Tokyo Games. The figure fell to 11.4 million for the 2022 Winter Olympics.

But now, Ashley Kim and Sanchit Agarwal — seniors who just graduated last week — along with undergraduatess Shiyu Ye, Srinjana Sriram, Ruiying Liu, Tori Wang and Zaid Bustami, have devised a digital plan that could help boost participation and engagement among global audiences for the 2028 Games. The students’ app, MedalUp, won gold in this spring quarter’s inaugural Innovation Challenge, a six-week competition organized by UCLA, Amazon Web Services and technology consulting firm Slalom.

“Dwindling interest in the Olympics raises significant concern for the organizers because it leads to reduced cultural interaction among the fans, which is one of the main goals of the event,” Kim said. “Since the Olympics is one of the major global sports events through which people around the world gather to demonstrate their fanship and support their country, decreased interest not only discourages the hosting country and sponsors of the event, but also diminishes opportunities for cultivating global fandom.”

MedalUp, which is aimed at users around the world, especially those in younger demographics, will provide gamified experiences and competitions within close communities. Users will collect points in various ways and earn coupons and rewards for products from participating corporate sponsors. The product is now with Amazon Web Services, which will take it from concept to a fully developed product.

“When planning for this project, we focused on introducing an app through which people across the world can engage from anywhere at any time and ultimately form digital connections,” Kim said.

The UCLA team was coached by Imtranur Rahman, a senior solutions architect at Amazon. The Spring Quarter Innovation Challenge, which in addition to Amazon Web Services and Slalom involved the UCLA Epicenter for Action Research, UCLA IT Services and the UCLA Career Center, introduces students to new ways of using technology to address critical issues facing the university, its students and Los Angeles.

“It gives students the opportunity to translate theoretical knowledge into practical application, gain exposure to industry experts, further their skills and technical expertise to gain a competitive edge on the job market, and obtain hands-on learning and real- world experience as team members collaborating on a technology solution,” said Jennifer Ferry, assistant chief information officer for UCLA IT Services, who served as a program advisor.

The challenge culminated with six teams pitching app ideas to a panel of judges from UCLA, Amazon, Slalom and the executive office of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. 

Raffi Simonian, executive director of the UCLA Epicenter for Action Research, which administered the challenge, said it is important for college graduates to augment their academic education with experience-based learning to prepare them for the expectations of future employers. There is a large discrepancy, he said, between how prepared college chief academic officers in the U.S. believe students are for careers upon graduation (95%) and how prepared business owners actually find new college graduates to be (11%).

“There’s about an 85% gap that I’m trying to fill so that the students are professionally ready when they graduate, with the skills they’ll need to excel,” he said.

The innovation challenge received about 70 applications for 42 available spots, Simonian said, adding that participants came from all matriculation levels and a variety of majors, including non-STEM fields such as economics, geography, public affairs and linguistics. All participating students received resources from StartUp UCLA, UCLA I-Corps, Westwood Alumni Ventures and the USC Viterbi Startup Garage to incubate their team ideas.

Arthur Best, a managing director at Slalom, watched the students ­throughout the six-week challenge and said he was particularly impressed by their inquisitive nature.

“It’s a real sign of critical thinking when a student can ask a question — especially when they’re not familiar with the domain or the language, the nomenclature — that’s insightful and gets to the heart of the matter. It tells me that they’re thinking critically about what they’re hearing, processing it through their filter of understanding and learning something,” Best said. “Finding great talent is a challenge in the modern workplace, and it’s wonderful to know that we’re equipping a new generation of diverse builders who can help build great tools for everyone.”

Kim said her involvement with the challenge has helped her grow in a variety of ways. As an applied mathematics major, she already possessed skills in problem-solving and computer programming, but didn’t have much knowledge in using these to create an actual solution. In weekly seminars, she learned how to design a prototype, consider user experience and create a business pitch. She said she also gained leadership skills by serving as a project manager, and team-networking skills that enabled her to build connections with other students who will become professionals in various fields.

“Graduating from UCLA as a co-creator of MedalUp means a lot to me, personally and professionally,” Kim said. “This result demonstrates my passion and interest in the technological field, where I hope to engage further after graduation. It also reflects my ability to design and strategize a real-world product that will bring entertainment to users.

“With MedalUp as the first step of my accomplishment, I hope to become a professional leader who can further idealize and create essential products or technologies for the world.”