Working remotely, more than 1,000 college and high school students from all over the country came together virtually March 27–29 at UCLA to compete by developing almost 200 software projects and demos that would improve the quality of life in Southern California.

One winning app helps people keep track of where they go when breaking self-isolation for essential reasons and gives them real-time information from Los Angeles County Department of Public Health on COVID-19 cases in their neighborhood. If they test positive later, they can report this anonymously, along with data on where and when they were out in public.

Organized by UCLA students, LA Hacks, which is Southern California’s largest annual hackathon, was held virtually in this its eighth year due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19.

“An unbelievable amount of good came out of this year’s event,” said Sriram Balachandran, a second-year computer science major at UCLA and one of the co-executive directors of LA Hacks. “In a time when everybody is at home, our LA Hacks team was able to provide a platform for students around the country to make use of their skills and talents for society.”

The 2020 edition of LA Hacks celebrated UCLA’s 100th anniversary by challenging hackers to develop projects focused on improving quality of life in Southern California. 

After being welcomed in video messages from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, participants competed, joined workshops and virtually attended panels to hear from UCLA computer science lecturer Carey Nachenberg and UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center software engineer Gina Kim, as well as representatives and recruiters from Honey, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Oracle and other event sponsors.

Participants submitted their final projects, along with short demo videos, according to four different tracks or themes. The winning projects in each track were: 

  • Quaranteam (COVID-19 track) — QRantine App: This app helps people who need to leave their homes for essential needs keep track of where they have been by saving and displaying check-in timestamps. If a user tests positive, the app allows him or her to anonymously report the dates and times of places they’ve visited previously. The app also displays real-time L.A. County health information on COVID-19 cases in their neighborhood.
  • Under Construction Like Always (LA track) — Using data from the City of Los Angeles, this software helps city planners, architects and citizens analyze the social, environmental and financial impact of a proposed building.
  • Trending Now (entertainment track) — The Musick Space: This app offers a virtual platform so that musicians can practice alone, rehearse together and perform online.
  • Code Green (sustainability track) — Group Greenery: The app creates a new social media network to encourage Angelenos to get involved in community gardening. Users can find local gardens, receive real-time data on the health of their plants and collaborate with fellow gardeners. Using computer vision, the network can also analyze daily humidity, sunlight and precipitation using user-submitted photos.

The competition’s overall winners were:

  • 1st place — Archiscape: Using AI and machine learning, this application helps city planners, architects and landscape designers automatically convert 2-D floor plans into 3-D models and virtual tours.
  • 2nd place — Mood for Zoom: This facial-recognition software helps lecturers, educators and hosts using this video-conferencing tool surmise the general mood of users on a video call, including emotions such as joy, anger, surprise and sorrow.  
  • 3rd place — CheaterBeater: Helps hackathons, venture capitalists and tech companies assess if the source code of a tech project has been copied or used in another application.

“Despite tremendous changes at home and at school due to the pandemic, students went above and beyond,” said Andres Cuervo, director of UCLA’s Centennial Celebration. “Their dedication and collaborative spirit — the sheer potential of their ideas and projects — are an inspiration during these times and a reminder that our next 100 years will be transformed by the optimism and innovative thinking of students.”

Among the 10 judges were representatives from Honey, Facebook, Google Cloud, Oracle, PwC and Office Ally as well UCLA’s Nachenberg and Kim. Winners were judged on originality, impact/usefulness, feasibility, technical difficulty and design. Grand prizes ranged from cash to products such as Nintendo Switch consoles, drones and hoverboards, among others. 

The LA Hacks competition was a marquee event of UCLA’s centennial year as the campus celebrates its many contributions to Los Angeles, the nation and the world since its founding in 1919, and looks ahead to another century of discovery and achievement.