People come to Mobile Makers because they’re ready for a change. They’re geared up to learn a new skill, join a new community and -- just maybe -- use both to help others. Last month, members of the Mobile Makers Alumni Alliance took matters into their own hands with Helping Hack Chicago, a weekend-long hackathon with one goal in mind: to use their mobile development skills for good.

Mobile developers, a local non-profit, and a good cause

Participants gathered at the Chicago Mobile Makers space on Friday, July 10, where organizers revealed the secret theme: they would have just shy of 48 hours to create an iPhone app for blind and visually impaired users. 

The Alliance teamed up with Second Sense, a Chicago nonprofit that provides rehabilitative services to people with vision loss, to provide context for the hackathon. The Second Sense adaptive technology team, David Flament, Marvin Commerford and José Nonato, are hardcore tech buffs and avid Apple users. And they are all blind.

Flament, Commerford and Nonato shared their stories -- Flament lost his vision to glaucoma five years ago, and Nonato has been blind since birth due to a brain tumor -- and then took questions about their app accessibility pain points and wish lists.

“One thing we need is a good color identifier,” Commerford said. “There are some already in the store, but they are terrible.”

Flament and Nonato, both gamers, lamented the lack of casual game options.

“We know that not all apps can be accessible. Candy Crush just wouldn’t work,” Nonato said. “But it would be good to have something to play for a few minutes and put down.”

“And if anyone could make Skyrim [The Elder Scrolls V] accessible, that would be awesome,” Flament joked. He had been looking forward to the game’s 2011 release for years but lost his vision before he had the chance to play.

Throughout the weekend, 15 participants split into four teams and created four apps. There were three rules for judging: 

1. The app had to be functional. 
2. It had to demonstrate good accessibility implementation (but did not have to be exclusively for blind and visually impaired users). 
3. A member of the team had to demonstrate that they could use the app while blindfolded in front of the judging panel.

Here’s what they built in a weekend

PathCraft

Developers: Michael “M.J.” Johnson, Pablo Phillips, David Seitz, Jr.
PathCraft is a text-based adventure game with mysteries to explore, and items to craft. Every step could be dangerous. At the end of each game, the player gets a score based on the number of steps they took. Voice dictation and a high-contrast user interface makes PathCraft easy to access for blind and impaired-sight players.

Selfie Assist

Developers: Joe DiVittorio, Logan Enright, Max Howell
Just like it says: Selfie Assist helps users take a perfect selfie without even having to press a button. The developers determined an optimal distance between the subject’s face and the iPhone camera, and when you start the app, a beep increases in frequency when you approach that distance. The app will automatically take the picture and bring up sharing options -- no need to dig through your camera roll to find and post the pic to Facebook!

Sounds Fishy

Developers: Nick Kapche, Jen Kelley, Dan Morton
The inspiration for Sounds Fishy was sonar communication. When the player moves a finger around the screen, a beeping sound increases in frequency when it gets close to a wandering phantom “fish.” The goal? Trap the fish into a corner for a specified number of seconds. In addition to taking on accessibility implementation, Sounds Fishy is written entirely in Swift.

Spectackle

Developers: Don Bora, Carolyn Chandler, John Malloy, John McClelland, Aubree Slavik, David Warner 
Spectackle helps blind and visually impaired users enjoy videos posted on social media. A user can upload a video to Spectackle, which can be viewed and described by sighted users. The app determines whether a user is visually impaired based on whether the voiceover feature is enabled, which means that when the app is launched, you don’t have to answer any questions about what you’re there to do.

Wrap-up

The panel of judges combined technical expertise and knowledge of the low-vision user: David Flament, Manager of Adaptive Technology at Second Sense; Dr. Robert E. Lopez, an ophthalmologist, inventor and owner of Occhiali Eyeglass in Lincoln Park; Ben Gottlieb, a seasoned programmer, game developer and owner of Stand Alone, Inc.; and Brandon Passley, technical co-founder of SnapMobile.

Everyone came out a winner, and teams were awarded education-based and experiential prizes which will help them further expand their knowledge and skills. Among the prizes were business of tech libraries from Coder[EXP] and full scholarships to Windy City Lab’s Introduction to Arduino workshop.

Meredith Elise, the alumni chair of Helping Hack, said that this is the first of many Helping Hacks to come. “This hackathon was necessary to expand our knowledge. We’re a generation of developers and users who rely on smartphones.”

She added, “We will continue Helping Hack to focus the tech community on making top shelf user experiences that can work for any user.”

Special thanks to the sponsors of Helping Hack Chicago for their generous gifts of time, meals and prizes: Coder[EXP], Eight Bit Studios, Max Howell, Mobile Makers Academy, Vokal Interactive and Windy City Lab.