At a young age, this tech-savvy duo shared the same childhood dream: serving food in space. Today, their paths have taken a few turns but lead to a similar focus: junior Allison Lu studies computer engineering and junior Jessica Li studies computer science. The two friends also shared the experience of winning BuildHer, a hackathon for women, transgender and non-binary people, earlier this month. A hackathon is a marathon design event where computer programmers, software developers, graphic designers, work together and collaborate on software projects. Going into the hackathon, the team recognized an issue: professional women who work late can face treacherous walks home. After arriving to the 24-hour hackathon with just six hours remaining, they found time to address this issue with their first-place idea, PowerWalk. The website harnesses Google Maps API and Google Maps Direction Service to help women navigate their career paths — literally. PowerWalk visualizes recent crime data from the Chicago Data Portal onto routes around the city, and uses that to optimize a safe route home. NBN sat down with Lu and Li to learn more.
NBN: How did you first become interested in Computer Science?
Lu: “I had a crisis freshman year because I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and then my roommate told me to take the Computer Science intro class, EECS 111. I took it and I really ended up liking it, so I switched my major.”
Li: “I was Material Science for two years, actually, and I just realized it wasn’t for me.”
Lu: “Yeah, so [neither] of us started as C.S. majors coming in here.”
NBN: Walk me through PowerWalk — what exactly does it do?
Lu: “Basically, a lot of women stay [out] late, or they have to walk through places they don’t really know about. Sometimes it’s pretty dangerous, because a lot of crimes happen. This is a visualization of the map that shows where certain crimes have occurred in the past year. Orange would be sexual assault, yellow is assault and battery, purple is homicide, and then blue would be stalking or kidnapping. What you can do is you can plan a route. For example, I want to go to the Merchandise Mart in Chicago.”
Li: “You could just go to Navy Pier.”
Lu: “Okay, that would work too! So it gives you the directions from point A to point B. As you can see, the walk from the Northwestern Memorial Hospital to Navy Pier is relatively safe; there’s no crimes you can see. However, walking from the Merchandise Mart to Navy Pier, you walk through all these areas where assault and battery have happened in the past. What Google Maps does is when you walk a certain way and you avoid an area, it re-routes you automatically so that it takes you on a better route. Another really cool thing is that, by dropping the little guy on the map, you can actually take a live street view tour of where you go through.”
NBN: What was the inspiration for this? Why did you decide to make this specific concept?
Li: “I kind of just thought it was cool because I often work late at her house.”
Lu: “I live on Ridge and Noyes”
Li: “The walk back at like 4 a.m. is kinda shady.”
Lu: “Especially if you’re in a place with no streetlights, and it’s kind of like ehhh”
NBN: “In a perfect world, what would be the next step for PowerWalk? If you had no midterms and a lot of time?”
Li: “This would ideally be a mobile app, as Allison explained during the demo very eloquently, you can’t walk around and carry your laptop.”
NBN: “You could try, but that might increase the crime.”
Lu: “It’d be like, ‘Oh! Nice laptop — alright, I’ll take it.’”
NBN: “So, a mobile app?”
Lu: “Yeah, and definitely refining the code itself, and making it more robust, making it apply to different cities. Right now this only works in Chicago, but they have crime data for different cities.”
NBN: “What does it mean to you to have women present in the tech field?”
Lu: “I think for me personally, having women in tech kind of makes me more comfortable with tech itself. Sometimes when you’re in an environment when there’s a lot of guys who are very confident in their knowledge, it’s kind of intimidating for women; a lot of these guys often disregard the opinions of women. Having women in technology, especially women who are leaders, pioneers, or [who] have some sort of definitive leading role in technology would make other women more inspired and more comfortable with technology itself.”
NBN: “You guys got to the hackathon with six hours remaining. Why did you get there so late?”
Li: “She wasn’t sure she was coming, and I was going to work.”
Lu: “I had to go grocery shopping. So I had to feed myself, and then Jessica messaged me, and she was just like, ‘Dayeon and I are at the hackathon, if you want to join us,’ and I’m just like, ‘Sure!’ because I didn’t have anything else going on that night. So I came, and then Alaina told us, ‘You guys should try to make something, if you can.’ Then we were just like, ‘Hey, do you wanna make something?’ I feel like it looks a lot more impressive than it actually is. It’s mostly Google.”
Editor's Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity