UI students, brothers place 1st at hackathon, win trip to California

Two University students and brothers are moving on to a national-level hackathon after placing first at MHacks, a hacking competition hosted by the University of Michigan from Feb. 1-3.

Ali and Ehsan Razfar won first place and will compete in Facebook’s hackathon in California. The Razfar brothers were followed by a second-place team from the University of Michigan.

The MHacks competition, with the slogan “Most Epic Hackathon. Ever.,” included 36 hours of hacking and featured Facebook as a sponsor. The three-day event invited student hackers from universities across the region to develop Web and mobile applications. The 550 participants made MHacks the largest student hackathon ever, breaking the previous record of 500 at PennApps, according to a news release.

The Razfar brothers created Speakeasy, which beat 122 other submissions to win first place, said Daniel Friedman, an organizer of MHacks, in an email.

The Web application translates the voices of people speaking in two different languages. The users speak into microphones, and the application transcribes the audio to the language of the other speaker. The application then reads aloud the transcribed audio.

Ehsan said he and Ali wanted to develop an application with the potential to help people who may not necessarily live in the “first world,” like many other apps do.

Ehsan suggested a scenario in which a child of an immigrant who does not speak English could use the Speakeasy app to understand what is happening in his classroom while also being able to contribute to a discussion using his native language.

This was the first hackathon for Ehsan, sophomore in Engineering. He followed the lead of his brother Ali, a senior in Engineering, who had previously competed in seven hackathons.

“He just has been learning how to do this stuff within the last year,” Ali said.

Ehsan said his and Ali’s ability to work together helped them win the competition.

“We definitely work well together,” Ehsan said. “I mean, we came out of the same womb.”

A team of two University students also won third place at MHacks. The third-place application, $now_code, was created by University students Rishabh Marya and Bhuwan Khattar. Friedman said the application is a real-time text editor and compiler, which helps a user learn to program.

“It reflects well on the strengths of the students and the training they receive in the computer science department,” said associate professor and associate head of computer science Craig Zilles, who taught Ali Razfar in a computers science class.

Zilles also said the department encourages students to participate in extracurricular activities and hackathons, so long as they do not interfere with academics.

Ali and Ehsan Razfar won a combined $2,000 and $500 in Apple and Visa gift cards for their first-place application.

The brothers were also awarded two trips to California, including one to compete in Facebook’s competition, which is only open to competitors who have already won a regional level competition.

Laura can be reached at lmshay2@dailyillini.com.