U of G Student Finds CODE to $25,000 Prize

April 02, 2014 - News Release

It took 48 hours of grueling coding, but a University of Guelph student is on the winning team in a national appathon competition.

Jason Ernst, an applied computing PhD candidate and a U of G master’s grad, was part of the Electric Sheep team that won the Canadian Open Data Experience (CODE) appathon, a contest that attracted 110 teams from across the country. Ernst and teammate Carlos Saavedra, a University of Waterloo master’s student, won the $25,000 grand prize and the fan favourite prize worth $1,000.

Contestants were to develop an app using the federal government’s open data. Ernst and Saavedra created the newRoots app, which matches new Canadians with their most promising destination cities in Canada.

The top 15 teams presented their apps March 28 to a judging panel.

“We presented second-last and saw some of the presenters before us suffer through technical problems and nerves getting the better of them, so it ended up making us very nervous,” Ernst said.

“It was intimidating since the judges were all very accomplished people like federal Treasury Board President Tony Clement, Shark Tank host Robert Herjavec and a crowd of investors. We thought we had a good shot at the fan favourite award because we used social media to promote our app. However, it was a huge surprise to win the overall title.”

Deciding what features newRoots needed was a challenge.

“We had to decide which features were most useful, and focus on doing those things well. It was hard not to get distracted working on something that might be a cool addition but in the end brings little value,” said Ernst, who studies wireless networks.

The duo used data from several government agencies to create their app. They also drew on their personal experiences.

“Carlos’ parents are immigrants to Canada and had a hard time selecting a city which was a fit for them -- plus, as grad students, we work with international students who face similar problems. Also, in our research, we found that immigration is projected to grow significantly in the coming years,” he said.

They used various technical tools to create newRoots, including Photoshop, PHP, Apache, Geany, Premier Pro and After Effects. Ernst believes his studies at Guelph since 2007 helped give him the needed skills.

“I've worked on projects in many fields, such as predicting the location of water wells, cognitive agents, vehicular traffic simulations, emergency room wait time predictions, agriculture, robotics, and the list goes on. I learned how to quickly solve unknown problems which span disciplines. This isn't unique to my experience – all grad students here seem to have similar experiences.”

Ernst believes the app’s simplicity and market potential were the reason the team won the $25,000 top prize. The duo plans to use their prize money to develop the app further.

“We're convinced that the app has potential to generate some real and consistent revenue,” he said.

“We are going to spend some of the money to market the app, and work with the government as much as possible to get the app exposed to new Canadians. We've been in contact with some other branches of government that may provide us with more open data, so it is possible to expand the app to include students and other people within Canada who wish to move.”

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, 519-824-4120, Ext. 53338, or lhunt@uoguelph.ca; or Kevin Gonsalves, Ext. 56982, or kgonsalves@uoguelph.ca.

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