Math Undergrads Hack SF and Win

By Ed Carpenter, Office of Marketing Communications Posted Sun, 04/05/2015 - 17:00

USF math students won the nation’s largest challenge-driven hackathon. They did it by developing a breakthrough application that reduced the online storage size of photos, while preserving faces in the images in crystal clear high resolution.

The idea was born from their frustration with staring at pixilated images on their friends’ Facebook timelines and Instagram feeds, said Jared Rohe ’15, who teamed up with Andrew Stocker ’15 and recent University of Southern California alum Andrew Schreiber.

What Facebook should look into

“Everyone I know is tired of squinting at fuzzy pictures of our friends and family on social. It’s horrible! When we try to show them or download them, there’s a noticeable deterioration of people's faces,” Rohe said.

The team called their application “fpeg” for face peg. The name is a play on “jpeg,” the most common digital image filename. Using a mathematical algorithm Rohe, Stocker, and Schreiber created during the 36-hour competition, fpeg found faces in a library of high-resolution images and preserved them, while compressing the background to save storage space and allow for quick loading times. The edited pictures are about the same size, overall, of those on most social networks — which compress every part of every image by default.

“We made it for the competition, so it’s not an actual product we’re trying to market. But it’s the kind of thing we think Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram should look into,” said Rohe, who called the hackathon an amazing experience and one he wouldn’t have had if Assistant Professor of Mathematics David Uminsky hadn’t encouraged him.

Teachers know how to challenge you

As it turned out, competing against 100 teams at the Accelerate SF hackathon — held during DeveloperWeek, San Francisco’s largest weeklong tech event — was their professor’s idea. While Rohe and Stocker, both math majors, had taken some programming classes at USF and dabbled in coding for fun, they’d never thought about testing their skills against some of the country’s best young programmers. 

“That’s the kind of personal relationship you build with teachers here. They get to know you and know how to challenge you and they end up opening up opportunities for you that you never imagined,” Stocker said.

Winning the competition led Hewlett-Packard (HP) to offer Rohe a job — even before he graduates in May. He starts work for HP’s cloud division on June 1.

Preparing programmers & data scientists

Stocker, who graduates in December, will head to UC Los Angeles this summer. There, he’ll join a growing number of USFers (including Rohe) who’ve done residencies at UCLA’s three-month Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program in applied mathematics — a national leader in turning out talented mathematicians. 

“Winning the hackathon is a pretty high honor,” Uminsky said. “And it’s proof that USF is preparing students for jobs in the real world, whether that’s as mathematics-minded software engineers for tech companies or data scientists who leverage their skills to achieve better outcomes in fields like health care and finance.” 

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