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Coders pitch ideas for groups at Pittsburgh's Steel City Codefest

| Monday, Feb. 24, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-ReviewP
Members of the Barkley REI team, rear, from left, Joshua Petry, Ryan Sprake, Eric Miller, Ian Moffitt, and Sarah Swartz present their idea for an app to a group of judges at Codefest on Sunday, February 23, 2014 at American Eagle Outfitters in the South Side. They were working on data collection in the field for the Salvation Army.

Slow to load and difficult to maneuver, Pittsburgh Cares' website for would-be volunteers is a recruiting nightmare, the group's executive director said.

“We get so many phone calls from people who've tried to sign up online or on their phones and can't get anywhere,” Deb Hopkins said on Sunday. “We want to recruit more millennial volunteers. They're out there, but we're losing them.”

She might have found an answer. The Lawrenceville-based nonprofit that pairs altruistic Pittsburghers with local volunteer opportunities was one of seven organizations at the heart of this year's Steel City Codefest, which wrapped up on Sunday in the South Side.

Designed to emphasize community impact, scores of participants were presented with each group's specific challenges for computer coding and app development. They included submissions for The Salvation Army Emergency Disaster Services, community engagement through Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania, and member and route tracking for Bike Pittsburgh. Each team had 24 hours to design and develop mobile software relevant to one organization's most critical need.

Coffee cups and paper scraps littered the sixth-floor room inside American Eagle Outfitters' SouthSide Works headquarters, where sleep-deprived coders and product developers scrambled to perfect their five-minute pitch. The Urban Redevelopment Authority sponsored the event.

Skill level varied widely, said David Rush, 28, of Shadyside, who opted to coach this year rather than compete.

“There was one team composed entirely of freshmen from (Carnegie Mellon University). They're all just learning how to do this,” Rush said. “Then you've got teams who've worked together for 10 years or more. That knowledge and diversity made this year's competition really fun to watch.”

Mayor Bill Peduto jokingly called the 2014 winners, who developed an app to streamline city garbage and recycling pickup announcements, a product of “21st-century nepotism.” Codefest's 2013 winner, The Jetsons, represented the city of Pittsburgh.

“But nothing came of it,” said South Side resident Brad Moeller, 27, whose team again ranked among the top six finalists. “It was a parking app, and we talked to the city about it for a while, but it got really political.”

“That's part of why we picked Bike Pittsburgh this year,” said teammate and Pittsburgh native Jeffrey Shebetich, 33, who works for Orbitz in Chicago. “The cause really appealed to us, and it was a really interesting challenge.”

The three-man team established an interactive game for users to track their routes, accrue points based on rides and miles and earn rewards while Bike Pittsburgh tracks user data.

Hopkins beamed as two teams representing Pittsburgh Cares competed in the finals. Though neither took first, she said she plans to invite both groups to partner with her office and jointly apply for a $35,000 grant.

“If this works out, other cities could be interested in adopting the same app,” she said. “For us in Pittsburgh to take the lead on mobile technology — it's awesome. I'm over the moon.”

Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at 412-388-5815 or

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