With Watson’s help, Adelphi hackers wow IBM judges

Code read: Four Adelphi University students showed off their talents for reading and writing computer code at a recent NYC hackathon.

A team of crack Adelphi University computer-science students took second place, and a step toward a potential commercial venture, at a recent New York City hackathon.

Students Sarthak Arora, Prasanth Venigalla, Jai Punjwani and Harmit Minhas, all projected members of the Class of 2018 at the Garden City university, captured the $1,500 runner-up prize at the API-First Hackathon, a three-day June coding event sponsored by MobileMonday, a national community of innovators, entrepreneurs and other tech-minded professionals.

The event focused on “API-first,” a development strategy in which programmers first create an application programming interface – the subroutines, protocols and other digital tools facilitating application software – and then build a product, such as a website or mobile app.

The hackathon, judged by IBM employees, also worked exclusively with IBM technologies including StrongLoop, which offers open-source solutions for the API developer community, and Bluemix, a cloud platform that supports several programming languages.

Hackers also got their virtual hands on IBM Watson, the tech giant’s ubiquitous cognitive AI system.

Leveraging their interest in Watson and artificial intelligence as a whole – and their successes in previous coding contests – the Adelphi squad invented “Watchu-Wantson,” an app that crunches syntax and “personality insights” pulled off a person’s Twitter profile to come up with ideal gift selections.

That met the basic contest requirements, to be both innovative and practical. The foursome came up with the app after about an hour of brainstorming, then wrote it up over a day-and-a-half of frenetic coding at the West Soho co-working space Galvanize and presented it to the judges.

“They didn’t just want an idea, they wanted something that actually worked,” noted Arora, a Brooklyn resident who actually pitched the Adelphi team’s final product to the judges.

Gifted: Arora, Venigalla, Punjwani and Minhas explain Watchu thinking at the API-First Hackathon.

“We wanted to sell them on the idea that it wasn’t just about picking a gift, but it was about getting to know people and making a connection before you actually meet them,” Arora added. “The things that we tend to miss in human interactions, social media would never miss.”

There were technical challenges aplenty – for instance, the team first tried to utilize Facebook as its social media base, but limited permissions forced them to pivot to Twitter.

It wasn’t the first time this squad had faced technological challenges or tight programming deadlines. In 2015, the four worked together during Adelphi’s Hack the Library event to create Study Sessions, which helps students connect with others studying similar topics inside the university’s Swirbul Library – and is still available as part of the AU2Go mobile app, a sort of virtual campus directory for Adelphi students.

Watchu-Wantson may also live on beyond the hackathon of its birth: Venigalla plans to use other IBM tools to build the app into a talking robot that makes gift suggestions, according to Adelphi.

The Glen Head resident said one of the lessons of the strong finish in the API-First Hackathon was “realizing that we are competitive in the job market,” even though other teams came from “big-name schools” with more substantial computer-science reputations than Adelphi’s.

“We tend to think they have more knowledge than we do, but we were much more competitive than a lot of people there,” Venigalla noted. “The Adelphi Computer Science Department does make us competitive enough to be in a competition like this.”