Medha Gupta worried about walking alone, so she created an app to make it safer

Medha Gupta, a sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School in Alexandria, Virginia, was the winner for Virginia's 10th District in the Congressional App Challenge. She created an app that alerts selected people if the user fails to arrive at a destination in time. Must credit: Washington Post photo by Jahi Chikwendiu

Medha Gupta sometimes felt uneasy making the 20-minute walk from the corner where the school bus dropped her off to her home in Herndon, Va. — especially during the colder months, when it would get dark early. Her mother had a suggestion: Write an app.

Divya Gupta was half-kidding, but Medha, a sophomore at Fairfax County’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, took the challenge ­seriously. So she went to work. “I knew I had a problem I needed to solve,” said Medha, 16.

The result was Safe Travel, an app designed by Medha to help commuters feel more secure when traveling alone. Using their iPhone (the app is compatible only with iOS), a person can program it to send an alert to someone they trust if they fail to arrive at a destination within a certain time.

It was the first iOS app that Medha had created. It’s a program language she wasn’t well-versed in, so she didn’t think much would come of the project. But her inaugural effort caught the eyes of judges for the annual Congressional App Challenge, who selected her as the winner for Virginia’s 10th District. “We were elated,” said her father, Manmohan Gupta, who has a computer engineering ­background.

The App Challenge is designed to encourage students to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and math by experimenting with coding and computer science. It is modeled after the Congressional Art Competition, where student artists compete to have their works displayed at the Capitol. Once exclusive to high school students, the challenge was opened in 2017 to students in grades K-12 across the country.

“This contest is about building the domestic pipeline for the jobs of the future,” said Rachel Decoste, executive director of the App Challenge.

This year, more than 4,100 students submitted nearly 1,300 apps. One winner is chosen for each congressional district that participates. Medha beat out several other competitors in Virginia’s 10th District, which is represented by Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.).

“We are always delighted to see the innovation and talent that our students demonstrate through the annual Congressional App Challenge,” said Comstock. “It is this kind of skill and innovation which makes this contest so rewarding each year.”

The app challenge is an initiative of the U.S. House of Representatives, but is managed by the nonprofit Internet Education Foundation. Winning students are invited to attend a reception on Capitol Hill in April and also received $250 in Amazon Web Service credit

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