Code and Response

Creating and deploying open source technologies to tackle some of the world's biggest challenges

On Tuesday, July 23rd, the New York City Developer Advocacy team hosted the Girls Who Code leadership team and alumni for an exclusive, one-day hackathon at IBM’s Astor Place location. With the enthusiastic support and participation of a large number of IBMers, Kelcey Gosserand – the New York team’s City Leader – and her team prepared a fully immersive experience. Key executives from Girls Who Code also attended, including Vice President of Development, Laura Meli, Manager of Alumni, Ashley McPhearson, and Manager of Partner Engagement, Mayela Calderon.

Girls Who Code is a nonprofit whose mission is to close the gender gap in technology and to change the image of what a programmer looks like and does. IBM supports this endeavor as an Alumni Partner.

The goal of the hackathon was to ideate and build solutions for disaster response and recovery efforts around the world, leveraging IBM tech resources. Additional New York City Advocates included Roger Osorio, Program Manager; Elisabel Herrera, Execution Lead; and Pooja Mistry, Developer Advocate. Shari Chiara – Program Manager of Developer Tech and Advocacy – traveled from Charlotte, North Carolina to support the team’s efforts. Held in the 4th floor Maker Space, about 30 college-aged women participated in the hackathon and within a period of four hours, spun out seven solutions that all utilized IBM tools.

The event

The event kicked off with Beth Smith, GM of IBM Watson and AI, delivering the Executive Keynote. Her message detailed IBM’s efforts in addressing some of the world’s most pressing challenges, such as climate change, through their participation in the global initiative, Code and Response. This new initiative takes the best IBM has to offer in AI, Blockchain, IoT, and more to develop solutions overcoming the threats and health risks stemming from natural disasters. Following the keynote, Beth Smith moderated an HR and Careers panel featuring IBMers in various stages of their careers and from different parts of the organization and included a leader from HR to help facilitate the discussion. The ensuing conversation aimed to provide the Girls Who Code alumni with insights into the life of women in STEM at IBM. Fun fact: one of the panelists, Joan Tubungbanua, participated in the Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program in 2016! She credits the program for giving her the confidence to pursue a career in software development. The full list of panelists are listed below:

  • Shari Chiara – Program Manager, Developer Tech & Advocacy
  • Thomas Wenzlau – Talent Leader, New Collar Initiatives
  • Becky Duane – Business Development, M & A, Strategic Partnerships IBM Blockchain
  • Alexandra Sardarian – WW Product Marketing, Watson Marketing
  • Elizabeth Kelly – Software Engineer, IBM Cloud, and Cognitive Software
  • Joan Tubungbanua – Cloud Competitive Enablement Software Developer Intern

IBM’s Senior Technical Staff Member, Susan Malaika, presented her summary of the United Nations coding challenge in Geneva where she participated in June. She was there to help solve problems centered around human rights and disaster relief and developed open source, risk-reducing apps related to natural disasters. Pooja Mistry then led a workshop that introduced IBM Cloud Services and Technology and introduced the challenge, Twitter Data Analysis Using Node-RED. Watch a tech talk on this topic here. Given the time restraints for a one-day challenge, Roger Osorio borrowed best practices from Startup Weekend, a 54-hour startup accelerator challenge, which he serves as the lead organizer for New York.

The young women divided into seven teams of three to four members to ideate and develop solutions that addressed the challenge. Successful submissions had to leverage one or more IBM Cloud Services or IBM Systems. Also, as part of the submission process, all team members accepted the 2019 Participation Agreement. IBMers from various departments stepped in as mentors during the hacking session. Sabtain Khan, Offering Manager for Watson Visual Recognition, offered his technical expertise, along with Cognitive Software Engineer, Ruchi Asthana, and Senior Technical Staff Member, Krithika Prakash. Senior Content Strategist, Zinnia Gupte, coached the hackers on creating a compelling pitch deck. Roger Osorio offered advice on how to deliver a winning pitch in four minutes, which were allotted to each team.

girls who code hard at work

The judges and their criteria

An all-star panel of judges was assembled to critique the pitches and award a winning team. The judges included returning panelists Alexandra Sardarian and Shari Chiara. Beth Smith also returned to judge. Lexie Komisar, Global Program Director for Longtail ISV, and Saleem Hussain, Director of Strategy for IBM Cognitive Applications, were also part of the judges’ table. P-tech Intern, Paige Lord, shadowed Shari Chiara, during the event and provided her insights during the judging portion. The judges used a rubric to score the teams, and from there, chose the top two teams. Judges critiqued the groups across five critical areas:

  1. Product-Market Fit – does the solution solve the problem and size of the impact on the market?
  2. Technical Feasibility – does their use of tech make sense, and how could it scale?
  3. User Experience – does it make sense within the context of the market and problem?
  4. Marketing Strategy – does the plan articulate a specific target and consistent approach to the market?
  5. Differentiation – how unique was the approach to solving a long-standing or previously intractable problem?

The calculated scores for the top two teams were very close! The members of the winning team all took home Tello Drones and IBM Developer t-shirts. Second place team members received Call for Code notebooks.

Throughout the day, the atmosphere in the Maker Space was exuberant and electric. The event concluded with the participants volunteering to share their takeaways from the day. The most memorable feedback came from a young woman proudly stating that she wanted to pursue a career in developer advocacy! Another participant mentioned being unaware that IBM offered Cloud Services. Now equipped with access to the IBM Developer platform, she said all things are possible!

The teams

Team 1: SOS Project Search Optimized System, or SOS, created a communications beacon for disasters, using serverless capabilities via Project Owl’s mesh network. The team proposed the use of powered by solar panels in their solution, and includes Watson Assistant and cameras.

Team 2: Krisis (Winning team) With the use of visual recognition, Watson Assistant, tone analyzer, language translator, speech to text, and text to speech, members from Team Krisis stood out to the judges with their professional-looking branding, a concise and impactful pitch as well as a name with a significant meaning. The team’s plan utilized drones and AI to determine the best way to assist users in flooded areas during natural disasters.

winning team krisis

Team 3: CIVILIAN (2nd place)
Coming in second was Team CIVILIAN, where members created a platform targeted to low-income communities that allow citizens to share incidents with officials and volunteers. Communities communicate to officials and volunteers through a chatbot supported by Watson Assistant, speech to text, language translator, and tone analyzer.

Team 4: Mobilizing to the Mobility Disabled
In this team’s solution, their speech-to-text Watson chatbot provides emergency relief for the mobility disabled. The chatbot proactively reaches out to the disabled population in hopes to scale internationally and increase accessibility where Wi-Fi isn’t available.

Team 5: Escape Route
Project Escape Route used a a victim’s story in NYC to create a solution that maps out escape routes for vulnerable communities.

Team 6: Virgil
Leading you out of disaster, Virgil is personalized for users to provide alerts via a disaster dashboard. The dashboard is a live feed, using Watson news API. The dashboard also has a panic button, where a Watson AI assistant helps understand a user’s level of panic and helps her work through it. With their focus on mental health in harrowing situations, this potential application could be used for other scenarios, such as school shootings.

Team 7: Find my Child
This team designed a bracelet for children with their medical info, and where Project Owl’s ducks can identify them and their medical needs. Organiations and governments can determine who is missing during a disaster, through Project Find My Child’s solution by way of Watson Visual Recognition (unique color, signals on bracelet), use the cloud to store the data, and Watson Studio to navigate and locate the missing child.

All of the members from the seven groups were encouraged to continue working together following the hackathon and submit to Call for Code by the July 29th deadline.

Throughout this one-day hackathon, it was truly inspiring to see these groups of diverse young women create a vast range of solutions that could reduce natural disaster risks. We want to extend our thanks to all of the participants, judges, mentors, speakers, and especially Girls Who Code for making this event possible!

participants girls who code


This year, World Humanitarian Day is on August 19. Coincidentally, the focus is on #WomenHumantarians, where the UN recognizes and honors the work of women in crises throughout the world. We recognize that all of the women participating in Call for Code and IBM’s new initiative, Code and Response, are #WomenHumanitarians in their own right as they think up and design technology solutions to help victims of natural disasters.

Inspired? Check out these resources

Look into the tech the teams used at this hackathon:

You can get further involved by checking out IBM’s new initiative Code and Response. You can also check for local events near you and find resources on how to help the cause in launching open technology solutions to aid communities needing critical aid.

Photographer credit: Carey Wagner