The beginning of summer is a euphoric transition for any school kid, but learning that you and your friends have won an international tech award for an app you’ve developed in order to help your community? That’s enough to just freak out with excitement.
For 14-year-old friends Hasini Juluri and Isabel Xu, along with their 12-year-old sisters Aditi Juluri and Cynthia Xu, that’s exactly what they did when the Bellevue teens learned that they were one of seven regional winners representing the United States by Technovation, a global nonprofit organization dedicated to tech education for girls ages 8 to 18.
“It’s super competitive, so we were super happy to win,” Hasini said of the competition, which has more than 20,000 global participants and only 15 regional winners. “I was actually at the Louvre in Paris [when I learned we won] and I was freaking out.”
Every year, Technovation puts on a competition where teams of girls in different age divisions from all over the world develop and present their plans for mobile apps that address real-world problems. For the four Bellevue girls who make up team STEM Girls!!!, this means helping and supporting those who are traveling out-of-state to seek an abortion.
“Ever since the overturning of Roe v. Wade, millions of women have been affected,” said Isabel. “We volunteer at women’s shelters and found that many of the women were from Idaho and that they had made the journey to Washington to seek abortions. Talking to them, we learned that they felt isolated […] It can be emotionally demanding if you’re here alone.”
In November 2022, Paul Dillon, the vice president of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho, said that there was an increase of 19% of patients seeking abortions in Washington state between August and October, which were the first few months following Idaho’s near-total ban on abortion.
The winning app designed by the STEM Girls!!! is called MyChoiceHousing and is described as an “AirBnB-type” mobile app where anyone who must travel out-of-state to seek an abortion would be able to find safe — and most importantly, private — temporary housing with vetted hosts.
The app isn’t live yet, but the girls have plans for it to give options for temporary housing, education on contraception and alternatives to abortion (like Plan B or resources on giving up an infant) and information on verified abortion clinics. The latter is necessary so that app users don’t end up going to “crisis pregnancy centers,” which the American Congress of Obestetricians and Gynecologists describe as facilities that “aim to dissuade people from accessing certain types of reproductive health care, including abortion care and even contraceptive options.”
“We’re lucky to live in a state where abortion is legal and we had an opportunity to help others. For people our age, we’re not taught to think about issues in our community,” said Isabel, when talking about how the girls decided to have their app focus on abortion. “We knew there was a lot of stigma, but we realized we were pulled toward it the most.”
Hasini added: “It was something we hadn’t seen before.”
When it came to creating MyChoiceHousing, the girls started their brainstorming in late December and began work on their app idea, with help from resources provided by Technovation, as they had limited experience with coding and app development.
“We had access to the MIT app inventor, which helped us bridge that gap,” said Isabel.
Work on the app was split among the team members. While Isabel and Hasini focused on coding, the younger girls Aditi and Cynthia did extensive research and marketing, along with coming up with the app’s design.
Now that the girls have become regional winners, with a prize of $250 per team member and an educational stipend from Technovation, they can work to bring their app to life and help those in need.
“We hope to work with professionals,” said Hasini.
The girls talked about the importance of privacy with the app, saying that all of the information is encrypted and that they plan on extensive background checks on the hosts.
When asked about the possibility of a backlash to their app, Isabel and Hasini said that it was something they thought about during development.
“But, we know that this is the right thing to do,” said Isabel.
Registration for the 2023-2024 season begins in October. Interested participants can sign up at technovationchallenge.org and will be notified when registration is open.