From hacking to helping: UT Dallas students improve the city during Hack Week

The city of Richardson enlisted help from college students this week to help improve the community.

Sponsored by State Farm, students from University of Texas at Dallas are competing in the inaugural Hack Week competition, through which participants develop solutions to city problems that could become public policy.

Dawn Francour, head organizer for Hack Week, said State Farm’s philanthropy department approached the city of Richardson with a request to help determine solutions for their pain points. UT Dallas students were invited to develop tangible solutions.

Saturday morning at the Hack Week kickoff, city of Richardson representatives presented three problems: parked car safety, alternate transportation awareness and roadway safety in the city.

“We tried to make it vague because we want the students to use their thought process and their imaginations to come up with the right solution for that problem,” Francour said.

Solutions must be possible through a budget of $25,000 or less, along with thorough documentation on how to implement the solutions. The solutions can be software-related, a website or a general idea, she said, but really the sky’s the limit.

“We’re anticipating that they’re going to use their excitement in the idea of making something better for the city and to utilize their [computer science] skills here,” she said. “What we really wanted to do was give the students the ability to do something that impacted the city that they live in.”

Gopal Gupta, head of the UT Dallas computer science department, emailed his students about participating. Over 150 students signed up for the inaugural Hack Week.

A winner will be crowned Friday, and the winning plan will then be implemented in the city. One of those students could be Plano Senior High School graduate Shurjo Ali.

When Ali heard about Hack Week, he said he was interested in combining technology and policy to solve problems in the city. Ali and his team are tackling traffic problems and vehicle wrecks at Richardson intersections.

Ali said Hack Week was an opportunity for students to give back to their communities and teaches students “no matter what you become, you should always give back to your community.”

Detective Ron Vanwieren of the Richardson Police Department provided context to the posed problems. He explained main causes of burglary, like residents not being aware and leaving their cars unlocked, or homes not having surveillance and other holes in security.

Regarding traffic, Vanwieren advocates for more accessible public transit in Richardson, so he’s excited to see what the students can do to improve policies and quality of life in the community.

He said he liked the idea of Hack Week “because a lot of these students look at things very differently, so it’s going to get a whole different set of solutions. And it will help because a lot of departments are short on manpower, and if [the students] can come up with these solutions, it could save a lot of time and energy.”


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