Coding champions

By ANGELINA MARTIN

When 8th graders Haiying Zeng and Divya Katyal noticed the heartbreaking amount of homelessness plaguing their hometown of Modesto, the pair decided to put their mutual love of coding to use to create a cell phone app that would help those in need.

Zeng and Katyal’s app “Homeless Network” was crowned winner of Congressman Jeff Denham’s Congressional App Challenge, which asked middle and high school students to create and showcase their own software applications, better known as apps, for mobile, tablet or computer devices on a platform of their choice.

“Homeless Network” is aimed to help individuals, homeless shelters and organizations that serve homeless populations locate homeless individuals, making it easier to direct resources for them. The app serves as a platform to pinpoint areas where help for the homeless is needed the most through crowdsourcing, allowing members of the community to place a dot on a map identifying an area of need. Users can also share photos of locations via text or social media, and post community service events on a custom map in the app. This then allows service providers and other citizens to more easily provide aid and relief to homeless by visiting marked areas.

“The whole motive for this app is for people to be able to find and donate to the homeless,” said Katyal. “There are over 500,000 homeless people in the United States, and California actually has the most in the country with over 170,000. We really wanted to help decrease those numbers.”

Katyal and Zeng, who both attend Elizabeth Ustach Middle School in Modesto, created “Homeless Network” over the summer while participating in the CodeX Program at Sylvan School District – a seven-week computer science camp. Both girls were admitted into the program from a large pool of applicants, and said that their love for technology and coding inspired them to apply to attend the camp.

Zeng explained that she had always wanted to become a writer one day, but after realizing she lacked the commitment it would take, she turned to coding instead.

“I view it as a form of writing, but instead of building words, you get to see your creations come to life and do what you want them to,” she said. “I can write these lines of code and then they’ll translate to something tangible that other people can share in and use for their own purposes. I like the idea that something as simple as a few lines of code can be used to make something that can help change the world.”

Like Zeng, Katyal also hopes to make the world a better place through technology.

“I believe technology can create miracles,” said Katyal. “I realized that within new technology, there’s the possibility for the betterment of communities, and coding is something I can do to help enhance that.”

While both girls knew they wanted to use their coding skills for good, the idea for “Homeless Network” came while Katyal and her family were already doing what they could to give back to the homeless population in Modesto.

“Twice a year, my family and I distribute homeless care packages, and this past June we drove for two or three hours trying to find homeless people to help,” she said. “Our efforts proved fruitless, so I thought of the app idea that could maybe help users find these individuals. I know there are a lot of people out there would like to help the homeless but don’t know how or where to start, so if the app can help them know the locations or where to donate, then they can make a difference in the community.”

Zeng and Katyal made that idea a reality while participating in CodeX, where the app won the program’s inaugural pitch competition in August.

“Divya and Haiying display the potential that every student has when exposed to computer science,” said Emmanuel Escamilla, founder of the CodeX Program. “They represent Modesto and the Central Valley well in developing an innovative approach to helping the homeless.”

On Nov. 20, the duo was recognized by Denham as the winners of the Congressional App Challenge, and “Homeless Network” will be featured on the U.S. House of Representatives website and displayed in a U.S. Capitol exhibit.

“I admire these young students’ attention to issues in our community and their desire to serve those less fortunate,” said Denham. “Homelessness is a serious issue, and here in the Central Valley we see far too much of it.”

While “Homeless Network” isn’t quite ready for public use, as more features have yet to be added, Zeng and Katyal hope that one day it can help make a difference. There is still much work to be done, however, and those who would like to lend their support in helping get the app up and running are encouraged to contact Katyal’s mother, Shalini, at 209-534-8299, or email Katyal at [email protected].

“We have the basic app set up, but we haven’t fine-tuned it yet,” said Zeng. “We hope that one day, it can help to diminish the plight of the homeless community.”

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