Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
In the span of 48 hours, Amy Jin ‘15, Sam Zhang ‘14, and Zachary Lockett-Streiff ‘14 accomplished what to many is seemingly impossible: they created an application from scratch. Joined by Zhang’s high school friend Jimmy Wu, from Olin College, the team of four competed at University of Pennsylvania’s PennApps competition–the world’s top college hackathon–and took first place in the Data Visualization category.
“It’s a 48-hour chance to produce the coolest application you can,” Jin said.
Starting at 8:00 p.m. on September 6, Jin, Zhang, Lockett-Streiff, and Wu camped out on the sixth floor of the Van Pelt Library, surrounded by over 1,000 college students from over 100 colleges across the world. Armed with nothing but their computers, they set out on the daunting task of conceptualizing and coding an original application.
The team didn’t have to wait too long for an idea to hit them. While in the elevator on their way up to the sixth floor, a couple librarians found out they were Swarthmore students, and asked them if they knew Swarthmore Assistant English Professor Rachel Buurma.
When Zhang replied that they did, and proceeded to ask about the Schoenburg Database of Manuscripts, the librarians informed them that the Van Pelt Library was also working on improving and expanding the database.
“Right then and there, in the elevator on the way up to the sixth floor, we were talking to these people, and they were like, ‘yeah, do you want to make an app?’” Jin said.
The application tracks the movement of rare and old manuscripts, starting from as early as the 16th century. According to Jin and Zhang, each time a manuscript enters the hands of a new owner or arrives at a new place, a transaction, or provenance, is recorded. Their application tracks the provenance history of all manuscripts in the database and presents the data in a visually appealing format, so scholars can easily see patterns in manuscripts’ movement through time.
“Our goal was to try and visualize the data. […] Making it sexy,” Zhang said.
UPenn’s Curator of Digital Research Services Dorothy Porter has already recruited the team to continue developing the application for her so the university can begin using it. On Wednesday, Jin and Zhang will travel back to UPenn to demonstrate their application to other members of the database research team.
“It’s kind of our attempt to give this a new perspective on all this old data that’s been collecting over the years,” Jin said.
Jin and Zhang look back fondly at those whirlwind 48 hours. They say the free merchandise and food, including caffeinated muffins, was more than worth the lack of sleep and nonstop coding.
“I would highly recommend anyone who’s interested in application development to maybe consider going to a hackathon,” Jin said. “You get tons of free stuff, it’s a great learning experience, and you get to meet some really cool people and establish some really cool connections.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled Dorothy Porter’s last name.