Young hackers build apps to help their elders

December 08, 2017 | GET MORE : Future of Banking

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U.S. Bank, AARP and IBM hosted an all-night hackathon aimed at helping senior citizens manage their money.

An app that helps senior citizens and their social networks recognize suspicious banking transactions – and look out for one another – took home the $8,000 grand prize at Hack Your Tomorrow, a recent hackathon sponsored by the U.S. Bank innovation team and its partners, AARP and IBM, in San Francisco. 

Hack Your Tomorrow, a title inspired by the idea of young programmers helping not only their elders but also themselves one day, brought together web developers and designers for an intense 28 hours of brainstorming and programming, all focused around a challenge: a solution to help older people manage their finances as independently as possible, while making it easier to recognize and prevent their financial exploitation. 

Data from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau indicates that nearly one in five seniors report being the victim of financial exploitation, while the National Council on Aging reports that financial abuse and fraud costs older Americans $36.5 billion annually. The problem compounds because, according to AARP, 25 percent of seniors don't have enough money in savings to meet even a $250 unexpected expense.

U.S. Bank is committed to helping its employees, customers and community partners address the issue. The bank has a strong enterprise operations policy on elder and vulnerable adult financial exploitation and provides employees with guidelines on indicators of fraud, ways to prevent it and how to report it. Its employees often speak about the topic to nonprofit organizations.

"At U.S. Bank we've been defining 'innovation' as 'change that adds value,'" said Doug Nielson, senior vice president of innovation research and development. "Hackathons give us an opportunity to explore potential product or service offerings that can add value by tapping into the creativity, curiosity and innovative spirit of Silicon Valley."

Hack Your Tomorrow's winning idea, Neighborhood Watch, was created by the team of Sol Chea and Abhinava Singh, who work together at NerdWallet. Over two days, they developed a platform that combines banking transaction alerts with information on how to prevent fraud and save for retirement. Concurrently, people in the senior citizens' social networks are encouraged to check in on them if they suspect suspicious charges, and to share their own experiences with fraud. 

"If you look at [the NextDoor app], there are a lot of posts like, 'I just got hit by this scam,' or 'This thing just happened to me.' We realized this is really powerful, so we created a place where you can be warned that these things are happening, but also tie that into a broader story about how to save money," Singh said of their idea.

In all, 91 people took part in Hack Your Tomorrow, breaking into 27 teams of one to five people each. Participants hailed from as far away as Kentucky, and at least one competitor was as young as 12. And for more than a few, the connection to the challenge was personal. 

"I found out last week that my father's been falling for scams, and he's been running up hundreds of dollars in phone bills with overseas calls," said Lou de los Reyes, one of the competitors. "I thought if I can create an app that can advise him on these kinds of scams, he might be more inclined to listen."

De los Reyes' project, Budget Sentinel, which took second place and earned her $5,000, uses Amazon's Alexa to alert seniors when they're over budget or have a suspicious transaction, and educate them about signs of fraud. Speedn, which earned third place finisher Ernesto Freyr $2,000, calculates how fast users are spending money and notifies them when budget limits are approaching.

After the coding ended mid-day Sunday, the teams had two minutes each to pitch their idea and demonstrate the technology they created to a panel of judges made up of representatives from U.S Bank, AARP, IBM and a managing director a at Bay Area venture capital firm specializing in fintech.

"The passion and dedication of the participants was incredible. The ideas that were pitched align with the responsibilities we have as a bank to protect our most vulnerable customers from financial exploitation," said Beth Dumke, one of the U.S. Bank judges in recapping her duties. "This type of event helps spur innovation internally, so we can maintain our position as most trusted choice for our customers."

Dan Endy and Karen Gutierrez are members of U.S. Bank's public affairs and communications team and social media team, respectively.