Friday, March 22

Code-A-Thon Challenge pits UCLA against USC in contest to program software that would benefit individuals with disabilities


Last weekend, six teams of UCLA undergraduate programmers participated in the semi-finals of SS12, a competition where contesters worked on software to improve disabled people’s accessibility to technology.

Competitors were challenged to make software that would either enable disabled individuals to utilize technology better, such as a voice typer for those who cannot stroke keys, or programs to enhance their lives, such as a phone application that could take a picture of a bill and tell the user the value.

Jacquelyn Leong, the executive director of Project:Possibility, said while there are a lot of programs that help people with disabilities, such programs are often expensive, and people with disabilities already have enough expenses.

“We wanted to make sure that everything was open source,” she said.

UCLA’s first-place team, along with the two other teams, will represent UCLA to compete with USC this Saturday in the Code-A-Thon Challenge finals organized by Project:Possibility.

The team implemented a binary input application on an existing on-screen keyboard in order to allow users with severely limited arm mobility to easily type by pressing one key.

Rows of the keyboard are highlighted one at a time, and after a certain row is selected via a single key stroke, highlighted columns flash through for the user to select a particular letter key. A word predictor was also added to speed up the process.

This technology can also be programmed to detect blinking ““ instead of the binary function key-pressed or key-not-pressed, the system would detect eye-open or eye-not-open.

“(The project) was the most doable and most finishable,” said Kasturi Raghavan, a third-year computer science student who worked on UCLA’s first-place team. “A lot of other teams started from new projects and didn’t base them from beginning work. We had the keyboard done and code to base off of.”

The competition lasted from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday. By the end of the first day, the basics of the program were functioning properly, said Jake Stothard, a second-year computer science student on the team.

“We were pretty confident the first day,” Stothard said. “We didn’t get stuck too much and there wasn’t too much frustration. That doesn’t mean everything worked perfectly the first time ““ things crashed, but it was relatively smooth.”

Obstacles still existed, however. For instance, not everyone on the team knew Python, the language in which the original code was written.

“We had a team of varying experience,” Raghavan said. “We had one junior, one freshman and four sophomores. The freshman on our team worked on the user graphics interface, while the older team members worked on coding and putting everything together in the end.”

Raghavan, who became the de-fact leader because of his seniority and experience, took the word predictor function Saturday night and basically came back with it fully functioning Sunday morning, said Stothard.

“I feel as if I could have done more,” said Greg Rivera, a first-year computer science student who worked on the first-place team. “I wanted to be assigned to tasks with more impact, but I didn’t have the knowledge.”

The winning team this Sunday will receive a prize of $12,000.

“They were a very upstart group,” said Michael Parker, vice-president of technology of Project:Possibility and mentor of UCLA’s first-place team. “The undergraduate computer science program must be working at UCLA ““ they jumped in, didn’t show any fear, were able to think on their feet, and did the work in a professional manner.”

The open-source codes from the competition are found on the Web site for Project:Possibility and Google Code. Open source codes are free for anyone to download and to improve upon.

“What you saw today is not the end,” said Emanuel Lin, doctoral student in computer science at UCLA and a judge at the competition.

According to Leong, who helped organize the UCLA v. USC SS12 competition, the federal government showed interest in the mobile currency reader in 2009, the second-place winner of last year’s contest. There was no further contact from the government, however.

“It feels good to give back to the community, it’s part of being a true Bruin,” Rivera said. “At the same time, it’s a real-world experience. It’s a win-win situation.”

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