Photo courtesy of Covaxx.

Three fledgling startups are leveraging technology to create positive social change after winning the second annual Pittsburgh Civic Hackathon. The event, presented by the Pittsburgh Technology Council and RustBuilt — a grassroots organization dedicated to entrepreneurship — took place the last weekend of January.

Convening virtually, 10 groups pitched their solutions, formed teams and worked for the better part of 54 hours over Zoom, grinding away to create minimal viable products — or versions of their concepts with just enough features to work — that could impress the judges (you can watch the full 2.5-hour event in the video below).

The winners are:

  • Covaxx, a startup building a central registration page for Covid vaccines in Pennsylvania;
  • AdRider, which hopes to bring down bus fares in Pittsburgh by creating a simple system for small businesses to advertise on Port Authority buses; and
  • Buddy System, a company creating a peer-to-peer counseling app to help first responders unpack their shared trauma.

Covaxx: First Place

In Delaware, New Jersey and West Virginia, there is a centralized, state-run registry for the Covid vaccine. Pennsylvania has no such system, opening the door to logistical challenges that have slowed down the vaccine rollout. It has not only frustrated people trying to get vaccinated but it has also led to wasted vials.

That got Matthew Clark, a full-stack software developer, thinking: Isn’t there a better way?

“It’s something that has affected my life greatly. My wife is a frontline respiratory therapist,” Clark says. “When I tried to get my family registered for the vaccine, I just saw the atrocity of the system that existed.”

Then he talked to his family in West Virginia, who said they had no problem registering and it only took five minutes.

For the Pittsburgh Civic Hackathon, Clark joined forces with W. Ben Towne, a senior project developer with a Ph.D. in societal computing from Carnegie Mellon University. Their team of five built an “alpha prototype” for a website that will soon allow Pennsylvania residents to book vaccine appointments at distribution centers throughout the state.

They’re calling their young company Covaxx, not to be mistaken with a company of the same name developing a Covid vaccine in upstate New York. The public can check out Clark and Towne’s website (the URL is subject to change) here.

Once the site is fully functional, individuals will be able to get online to fill out a form with their age, field of work and address to help determine their priority level for the vaccine. When an appointment becomes available, Covaxx will automatically send out a text message to the patient and book it for them if they claim their spot within 12 hours.

This “last-mile logistics” solution could help get past one of the great pitfalls with current vaccine appointment websites at major pharmacies, Clark explains. Right now people are registering at every pharmacy they can and getting on every list possible to get an appointment.

In the short term, Clark and Towne see Covaxx as a good option for smaller and more local vaccine distributions, like events organized by the city or county at Heinz Field, or small mom-and-pop pharmacies that gain access to vials of the vaccine.

“It could even become useful to the decision-makers,” Towne says. “Let’s say we have 100 people ready to go at this location. If you have a bunch of doses on a certain day, and you want to put them in a certain location to ensure that they get into arms, this could help.”

As the team eyes a permanent location in the South Side, they’re looking to expand. Grant writers, web designers and folks with back-end management expertise can reach out to Towne and Clark via email.

AdRider: Second Place

For Logan Hammerschmitt, a marketing and outreach coordinator at Grove City College, the Pittsburgh Civic Hackathon seemed like a good opportunity for his students, but he decided to enter the competition himself. Hammerschmitt and his team of nine ended up winning second place.

Their startup, AdRider, is a venture meant to bring down the cost of transportation in Allegheny County. The idea is to use a network of digital billboard displays on the sides of Port Authority buses to advertise small businesses. Part of the revenue, Hammerschmitt says, will be used to lower the $2.75 bus fare, which he says costs about 37 percent more than the national average.

While other cities do utilize digital billboards on public transit, Hammerschmitt notes that AdRider provides a novel self-service system. It allows small businesses to get their ads up and running in a matter of minutes, pending an administrative review. Companies simply head to a website — which is still in the works — and upload their ad. It will appear on buses the next day. AdRider will even design custom ads for a fee.

Because Port Authority buses have GPS sensors installed onboard as part of its TrueTime tracking system, AdRider can target ads by bus line. So it’s possible for a restaurant in Squirrel Hill to only advertise on the 61C line, where most potential customers would ostensibly be.

Hammerschmitt projects that this concept could generate about $110 million in ad revenue per year, and says that 70 to 80 percent could go to the Port Authority to subsidize bus fare. He believes that those cost-cutting measures will increase ridership as a whole.

To Hammerschmitt’s surprise, Katharine Kelleman — CEO of Port Authority of Allegheny County — spoke up during the AdRider Zoom pitch to say that she’s interested in setting up a meeting to discuss a partnership.

“Anything that we can do to help replace fare revenue means that we can get more folks on the buses, or it’s also money that we can use to invest in our future because this city deserves a bigger transit footprint,” she said during the event.

Buddy System: Third Place

Courtney Linder is senior news editor at Popular Mechanics magazine and a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh. In her spare time, she freelances for news organizations in her hometown of Pittsburgh, with a focus on technology. When she's not writing, she's probably reading something spooky or blasting Nirvana. She lives in the Philadelphia suburbs with her partner and her black cat.