Coding for Communities
When University of Maryland senior computer science major Surabi Ramamurthy helped design a website for her cultural community to use as a medium to bring people together, she realized that her growing interest in computer science could be used to do good. So, when Ramamurthy later came to UMD, she wondered if there was a way she could merge her passions productively.
She found the answer when her mentor and friend Simin Li (B.S. ’21, computer science) told her about a new club she was co-founding—the UMD chapter of Hack4Impact, a national organization dedicated to empowering students to develop software as a tool for social good. Ramamurthy joined the group in 2020 and became co-executive director of Hack4Impact-UMD in 2021.
“One of the things I love most about Hack4Impact is that we really welcome everyone, even non-CS students,” Ramamurthy said. “There’s definitely a scare factor in computer science. You have no experience, you haven’t done this before—there’s always a pressure. But Hack4Impact gives you the opportunity to gain that experience.”
Although Ramamurthy went in with little practical experience during her first semester with Hack4Impact-UMD, she gradually developed the necessary technical skills at a ‘bootcamp’ the organization provided.
“As long as you’re highly motivated and willing to learn, Hack4Impact will help you get to where you need to be and the tools to start making a difference,” she said.
For her first project, Ramamurthy helped build a special portal for the California Data Collective (CaDC), a nonprofit coalition of local water supply agencies dedicated to optimizing water management in the region. With her teammates, Ramamurthy developed software to help users of the CaDC website view county-by-county data about water usage from home appliances. The goal was to show how much water could be saved over time depending on residents’ appliance usage and help stakeholders make better water management decisions—something that can be especially crucial in times of drought and climate change.
Ramamurthy’s Hack4Impact projects remain some of her proudest achievements to date as a computer scientist. That feeling is shared by other members of the club, including the current co-executive director of Hack4Impact, Sadena Rishindran, a senior double majoring in math and computer science.
“I think a lot of people have forgotten in some ways that technology development isn’t just for big industry or just to satisfy consumerism,” Rishindran explained. “Nowadays, technology is so integrated into our lives that sometimes we forget that it really can make a difference in the quality of life of so many people. Hack4Impact’s mission really resonated with me because of this. The fact that I could use the skills I have as a CS major to make people’s lives easier while also developing additional professional skills at the same time is just very fulfilling to me.”
Hack4Impact is particularly unique because it gives students an opportunity to directly interact with nonprofits and clients, develop professional experience and soft skills in leadership or teamwork, and see how their skills as computer science professionals can directly generate a positive social impact.
“We empower students to take their humanitarianism and activism into their own hands,” Rishindran said.
Hack4Impact-UMD will hold its Fall 2022 project showcase at the Brendan Iribe Center on December 8, 2022. At the event, the organization’s project teams will demo the products they created over the course of the past semester, sharing each product’s purpose and how the product will help the nonprofit achieve its goals. Team members will also present their design process, talk about the challenges they faced and answer questions about their overall experience in completing their project.
At the December event, Ramamurthy looks forward to unveiling her team’s latest project with Grassroots Grocery, an organization that delivers food to open-access refrigerators in food impoverished areas. With the showcase and demonstrations, she hopes that Hack4Impact will be able to draw in students from all majors interested in making a difference using tech skills.
“The showcase is open to all UMD students, faculty, staff and anyone in the general public,” Ramamurthy said. “It’s the perfect opportunity for anybody interested in joining the club or using our services to really see what we—and they—can do.”
Story by Georgia Jiang, CMNS
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