Carnegie Mellon University

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August 22, 2018

Moneythink Finnovation Challenge Propels Winner to Amazon Contest Win

For the second year in a row, the undergraduate student organization Moneythink hosted the Tartan Financial Innovation Challenge, or Finnovation, this past February. The hackathon-style event challenges participants to create projects that promote financial literacy.

This year’s Finnovation winner, Budget Bot, is among 14 winners of the Amazon Alexa Skills Challenge, titled Life Hacks. Created by Alan Jaffe (CS 2018), Budget Bot allows users to interact with their Alexa virtual assistant to update and check on their household budget.

“It’s for people who want to keep a budget and keep track of spending, but are not really satisfied with existing solutions because a lot of them require a lot of effort,” Jaffe said. “It simplifies the process to make it easier for people who don’t have a lot of time to spend on budgeting but still want to get the benefits.”

Moneythink CMU

Finnovation is hosted by the Carnegie Mellon University chapter of Moneythink, a national organization committed to promoting financial literacy among high school and college students. Kathleen Conway, Senior Academic Adviser and Program Manager of Economics, who serves as Moneythink CMU’s adviser, said, “Joining the organization is a great way to learn economics and finance skills and put them into immediate practice. The unifying theme among members is the desire to use their skills and position to help make a difference in the lives of those around them.”

Jason Ren, a junior computational finance and statistics major, will be president of Moneythink CMU beginning this fall. He joined the organization as a first-year, after an adviser recommended he look for opportunities in finance-focused clubs on campus.

Moneythink’s primary mission is sending CMU students to Pittsburgh-area high schools to serve as financial literacy mentors. “When I started mentoring at a high school, I realized how valuable it is,” Ren said. “They really learn a lot from us.” The students are responsible for developing their own lesson plans, which he noted made some of the members anxious. But the opportunity to serve as a mentor helps improve the students’ own financial knowledge, he said.

“A big part of why I enjoy being in the club is the people,” Ren said. “Everyone supports each other, and we’re all pretty close.”

Ren noted that he was pleased with Finnovation’s success this year, increasing the number of participating students from about 20 to nearly 40. In the coming year, he’s planning to develop fundraising activities to support the event and increase Moneythink’s presence on campus.

Finnovation Hackathon

Jaffe had planned to participate in last year’s Finnovation challenge, but a scheduling conflict prevented him from competing. This year, he was eager to submit a project that streamlined his budgeting efforts and minimized his efforts. “I was going to use this thing that I make, regardless of whether anyone else does.”

Finnovation participants gathered on Friday, Feb. 23, for a keynote from School of Computer Science professor David Kosbie before launching into their projects that evening. Like his fellow competitors, Jaffe began without an existing plan or code, and was challenged to develop his idea within 24 hours. He noted that most of the participants created mockups for their presentation, but he wanted a functioning prototype to present to the judges on Saturday afternoon.

“There were a lot of other projects that were really impressive,” Jaffe said. “I tried to make mine stand out by being focused on this one idea of making budgeting as simple as possible. I had a very clear value proposition, which might have helped distinguish it from some other ones that tried to do a lot of different things.”

Ren was enthusiastic about Jaffe’s Budget Bot presentation. “We literally saw Budget Bot happening from scratch that night through Finnovation. It’s definitely a cool experience.”

Alexa Skills Challenge

A few weeks after winning Finnovation, Jaffe received an email from Amazon announcing the Alexa Skills Challenge, inviting interested developers to submit skills, which are applications for the Alexa virtual assistant. The theme, Life Hacks, fit Budget Bot perfectly, Jaffe said.

To improve Budget Bot for the Amazon challenge, Jaffe added security improvements and vastly increased its training data. “Amazon has this natural language library built in where you can give it examples of phrases you want it to understand,” he said. “The more data you have, the more reliable your skill will be.”

Amazon began offering Budget Bot to users as soon as it was selected for the competition, which brought in a few hundred users, Jaffe said. “Now I can see people using the app and look at what kinds of things they need.”

Amazon recently announced the winners of the Life Hacks challenge and included Budget Bot among them. As more users sign up for the service, Jaffe will continue to add improvements to the application, available on Amazon’s website. But, he said, he won’t have as much time as before to devote to Budget Bot, as he has recently joined Jump Trading LLC in Chicago as a software engineer.