SFU team with two South Asians wins best student prize in 48-hour appathon

(L-R) MP Tony Clement with the SFU Data Crunchers team: Jasneet Sabharwal, Bradley Ellert, Jonathan Bhaskar and Maryam Siahbani.
(L-R) MP Tony Clement with the SFU Data Crunchers team: Jasneet Sabharwal, Bradley Ellert, Jonathan Bhaskar and Maryam Siahbani.

A team of Simon Fraser University computing science students has won a 48-hour “appathon” during which they conceived and built an app to help Canadian high school students compare the costs of a post-secondary education anywhere in the country.

Canadian Open Data Experience (CODE) 2015, hosted by the federal government, invited software developers, graphic designers, students and interested individuals to create an app using Government of Canada open data available on the CODE site.

The competition also encouraged participants to mash up these federal data sets with provincial, territorial and municipal data found on the site’s Open Government across Canada page.

SFU team members Jonathan Bhaskar, Bradley Ellert, Jasneet Sabharwal and Maryam Siahbani won the $5,000 prize for Best Student Team for High School Down, Where Next?

The graduate students only learned about the appathon on the day it began, and joined in several hours late. They spent what remained of the first 24 hours brainstorming about what they could do with the data sets, and then spent the second 24 hours building the app.

Team member Sabharwal is an international student from India studying at SFU for a master’s degree in computing science, specializing in natural language processing. He used big-data and data-visualization skills learned during a Mitacs internship at Worksafe BC to more quickly build the team’s app.

“At a glance, users can view the average rent and tuition fee for any program and institution in the country,” he says. “Other apps currently on the market only permit students to compare two or three institutions.”

The SFU team hunkered down in residence to create the app, which they’re now hosting online. The app includes a map of post-secondary institutions in Canada and charts showing the number of post-secondary institutions by province, their program costs, and average local rents. Users can click on, or drag their selections, then download the results.

The CODE competition attracted 125 submissions and 1,300 participants from across Canada.

SFU computing science professor Fred Popowich says managing Canada’s big data capabilities is critical to the country’s competitive advantage, and there is a growing need for education and training in the field.

Last fall, SFU launched Canada’s first Professional Master’s Program in Big Data in a bid to help meet the demand for big data specialists. One of the team members, Jonathan Bhaskar, is a student in the program.