The Columbia team posing with their prize

The Columbia team posing with their prize

Senior Staff Writer (and potential Comp Sci major?) Rachel Deal sat down with Piyali Mukherjee and Annie Zhang to talk about their success at last weekend’s HackMIT competition.

Last weekend, a team of four Columbia students came in third place at HackMIT, a hackathon hosted every year at MIT. The team was made up of juniors Anshul Gupta, Jackie Luo, and Annie Zhang as well as senior Piyali Mukherjee. They developed an app called Sensei that takes footage from regular store cameras–like the ones found at any bodega or small shop–and analyzes movements, producing useful commercial data on customers’ experiences.

Piyali explained that their idea came from wanting to utilize something that people already have, and since she had experience with video processing, the team decided to focus on analyzing video from store cameras.

“All stores have cameras, but they don’t usually look at the footage until there is a robbery or theft. We decided to build this app so that small stores could utilize and analyze all this data they are already collecting,” said Piyali.

With online stores, one can easily track how people are interacting with the website, but the team’s app allows owners of real-life stores to understand the customer’s experience in their shop. With the app, store owners can figure out how many people are coming in, how long they’re staying, and which areas of the store are most popular. Piyali mainly worked on the movement detection algorithm, while the others worked on creating the actual app.

Though it was Piyali’s second time at HackMIT, the hackathon was Annie’s first at a college, though she had attended a few sponsored by companies over the summer. Both described the environment as “huge” and “intense”–over one thousand students competed, some even traveling from Canada or Europe to hack all night in MIT’s hockey arena. Although MIT students offered to house the hackers, many participants chose to stay up all night to work on their projects. Beyond the hackathon’s high energy, another thing that stood out to both Piyali and Annie was the hardware available at HackMIT—hackers could potentially incorporate products such as Apple watches and Muse brain-sensing headbands into their final creations.

Throughout the twenty-four hours of the hackathon, Piyali’s and Annie’s team worked fervently and on little sleep (HackMIT even tweeted a picture of the team napping on top of their table.) Although the experience was demanding, the team had fun. The top ten teams got to demo their apps in front of all the participants, which Piyali and Annie both said was one of their favorite parts of the hackathon because they got to explain their work to people who actually understood what they were talking about.

“It was cool because afterward people kept coming up to us and telling us how cool our app was,” said Annie.

Annie and Piyali were proud, too, to represent women in STEM. Although there were only two women out of all the members of the nine other top teams, the Columbia team was made up of three women and one man.

While it may seem like the majority of Columbia is learning how to code and program, these students truly impressed us with their app and the hard work they put into creating their finished product. If you see them on campus, give them a pat on the back or bow down to them for being Columbia’s Hacker Gods/Goddesses.