Student Spotlight with Kevin Conley

WHIZ KID: A self-proclaimed computer hacker, Kevin Conley, 21, a senior in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, has developed a social networking application called SMSPersonFinder that helps disaster victims around the world notify their loved ones that they are safe and unharmed. Conley, whose mother is a computer programmer, says he has been programming computers since age 10.

Kevin Conley

Mark Stehle



‘HACKER,’ NOT ‘CRACKER’: Conley says “hackers” are benevolent programmers who build things to help people, while “crackers” are malicious programmers who attack existing software and security systems. “It’s still probably going to be awhile before that definition hits mainstream,” he says.

1,440 MINUTES: Along with fellow hackers, Conley devised SMSPersonFinder at the Random Hacks of Kindness “hackathon” held over the summer at Google Headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. Participants had 24 hours to complete the programming.

HEAL THE WORLD: At a lot of hackathons, programmers compete for fame and fortune. But Conley says this convention “was really just about donating your time to try to make something that will make the world a better place.”

HOW STUFF WORKS: SMSPersonFinder enables the world’s 4.5 billion cell phone users to report to Google Person Finder. If an individual is in a disaster area and has no internet connection, he or she can use the SMSPersonFinder to send a text message identifying who he or she is, where he or she is from and a current location and condition to a predetermined phone number.

THE INTERWEBS: Conley says Google Person Finder is a great service, but relies on an internet connection, which may be disrupted in a disaster. “I thought it would be neat if ... you could just send a text message with any phone in the world.”

WALK-THROUGH: Conley says his team gave a SMSPersonFinder demo to judges and Google employees. “The format of the demo was really fun,” he says. Everyone at the Google campus pretended that they were disaster victims and Conley showed how the SMS system can be used without an internet connection.

OPEN FOR BUSINESS: SMSPersonFinder is operational (smspersonfinder.appspot.com). Conley says he is working with Google to try to incorporate it into Google Person Finder. “They contacted us a few months after the hackathon to ask if it was OK if they presented it at this conference they were having in Washington, D.C. where there were a bunch of world leaders,” he says. “They wanted to showcase the technology.”

CARDINAL RULE: Conley says he hasn’t yet decided what to do after Penn.“I took the GRE, so I’m planning to apply to grad school. I’d really like to go to Stanford. I think that’d be a really cool school.”

Originally published on September 15, 2011