Journalism students from across the country used bots and chatbots last weekend to "hack" solutions to news digestion for the dyslexic and money management for millennials.
Hosted by MediaShift and the University's Reynolds School of Journalism, the 4th annual J-School Hackathon at the Innevation Center at the University of Nevada, Reno, brought together students from 11 schools who met to conceptualize a bot or chatbot from scratch and pitch to a panel of judges.
Mark Glaser, founder and executive editor of MediaShift, said part of the hackathon is getting students to work with peers from different schools.
"The teamwork aspect is always important, as is learning to work with people you've never met before," he said. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many students who don't get this kind of training at their schools."
Donica Mensing, associate dean of the Reynolds School, said she has been an admirer of MediaShift and was excited to participate in the Hackathon as a facilitator.
"Having the opportunity to bring people together in this way really helps position the Reynolds School as a leader in journalism education," she said.
Diversity and innovation fostered through team "hack" at the Innevation Center
Students were teamed up with students from Arizona State University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Point Loma Nazarene University, San Francisco State University, University of California-Berkeley, University of California-Santa Cruz, University of Montana, University of Nevada-Las Vegas, University of Nevada-Reno, University of North Carolina and USC Annenberg.
Courtney McKimmey, a junior at the University of Nevada, Reno, said the team aspect helped her group come up with better ideas. The team pitched a bot that would unscramble news for people with dyslexia and make news more digestible.
"I learned how to approach solving problems from teammates that I wouldn't have thought of before," she said. "The most rewarding part of this weekend was the diversity of people and ideas."
As well as the diverse team McKimmey worked with, she said the Innevation Center helped to facilitate their unique ideas.
"The Innevation Center is the perfect place for working with others," she said. "The room we were in provided a space for us to map out our thoughts while we produced our bot."
Students receive guidance from speakers, floating mentors and team facilitators
While working toward solving unique problems through the development of bots, the students were guided by key speakers, floating mentors and team facilitators.
Keynote speakers talked to students about how to market, create and monetize their bots as well as how to pitch to the judges their ideas.
Celeste LeCompte, director of business development at ProPublica, talked to students about why monetization matters for their bots and how to get people to give them money for their product.
Proposing that advertising is only a temporary solution or one aspect of the solution, she emphasized you can't get any money from people if you don't ask for it.
Among the floating mentors was Katherine Hepworth, assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Reno who teaches courses in graphic design, visual communications and user experience.
Hepworth floated between teams, and gave advice on logo design, user experience and business models. She stopped by a team that focused on a bot that gives travelers ideas of what to do on flight layovers.
Every team also had a team facilitator who was there to help foster and grow the students' ideas.
Among the facilitators was Amara Aguilar, associate professor of professional practice in digital journalism at USC Annenberg, who led McKimmey's team.
McKimmey said Aguilar was an asset to their team and helped focus the teammates and lead them towards taking second place.
Kelly Jasiura, a senior at the University of North Carolina, stressed the importance of her team facilitator, Laura Davis, assistant professor of professional practice at USC Annenberg.
"Our mentor definitely helped lead us to creating a great chatbot," Jasiura said. "She kept us on track within our ideas and didn't pass judgement on them."
Chatbot for financial planning takes win, targets millennials
A team that pitched a financial planning chatbot designed to be friendly and accessible for Generations Y and Z took first place.
Jasiura, a member of the winning team, explained their bot as something that can be used by a younger generation to "take on an adult problem."
During their pitch, they emphasized the issue of millennials or the younger generation failing to plan for their future financially. Their bot would tackle this problem by giving the user tools for financial success, like advice on saving and entertaining and motivational GIFs.
Sophie Proctor, junior at Point Loma Nazarene University, said she was surprised to have won, and said the user-friendly interface of her team's chatbot is what helped them succeed.
She also said the experience will push her to further look into chatbot technology.
"I am definitely very interested in problem solving through chatbots now," she said. "I came into this weekend not knowing what to expect at all but after working with my group and developing a startup that could actually be used, I think it's something that I am going to explore in the future."