I must admit, when I first heard about the digital catapult ‘hackathon’ I was skeptical. Surely there were better ways to spend my weekend than cooped up in a room with 50 individuals who chose to spend the first weekend of spring ‘hacking’. But I was curious: what exactly was a hackathon? Who participates in such events? What sort of challenges would teams be given? And, perhaps more a question of self-discovery: why was I being drawn into participating?
Sure, the offer of unlimited pizza, wine and raspberry pies was enticing, but alongside my curiosity was a different kind of appetite. That is, an appetite for fresh data relating to the cities in which we live. As part of the hack weekend, participants were promised exclusive access to the Digital Catapult’s Environmental Data Exchange; a new online platform boasting more than 550 datasets.
We live in the midst of a digital age where the statistics on the sheer volume of data collected and stored is astonishing. Just last week some of the team at Maynard attended a Cambridge Wireless event where they were informed that just 3% of the world’s data is accessible, and only one sixth of this – 0.5% – is currently used for analysis purposes. However, it is encouraging to see that much of this data is slowly being opened up for public use through initiatives such as the Environmental Data Exchange. The challenge now lies in how this data can be used in a meaningful way to help tackle the issues facing our cities and the environment.
Therein lies the challenge set out to us during the Environmental Data Exchange Hack Weekend. How can we be better custodians of the data available to us? How can we extract value from this data to unlock innovative ideas and ‘build something that matters’?
With the pressure suddenly on, Saturday morning saw us immediately divided into teams of 6-8 people from a range of backgrounds including Software Development, UX & UI Design, Data Analytics, Visualisation, Graphic Design, Business, Academia and Product Design. We were given just a few hours to brainstorm before presenting our preliminary ideas to the panel members to ensure we were on track.
Our team was particularly interested in how we could take an existing environmental problem and use digital technology to help solve the issue through increasing public awareness and encouraging behavioural change. Many ideas were thrown into the middle of the table – one of which involved the creation of a smartphone app that is designed to ‘unpollute your commute’ using real-time data and sensors that monitor air quality and pollution levels.
On discovering that another one of the hack teams had a similar proposal, we diverted to ‘Plan Bee’. More specifically, our plan became to develop a smartphone app and digital platformthat aims to help put a stop to the rapidly declining bee population in London, through a three-step method of ‘collecting’, ‘connecting’ and ‘collaborating’.
One of the initial issues identified through our period of research was that while many people are aware of and concerned about the declining bee population, there is currently no unified method to measure or monitor bee numbers and habitats. Similarly, despite there being many bee conservation groups and associations in existence, there is currently no central database for these groups to collaborate and share information.
After an intensive two days of research, data collection, data visualisation, user-interface design, public consultation, graphic design, coding, and business case development (and many many bags of popcorn), our team was ready to make our pitch to the judging panel: dragons’ den style.
In short, our proposition was broken down into three key components:
– Smartphone App: The purpose of the smartphone app is to collect data relating to bee numbers to assist in the monitoring of bee health across the capital. Users are encouraged to log bee sightings through tapping the ‘I spotted a bee’ button, with the option of including a photograph and/or additional information. Encouragement and incentives are offered to registered users via text message, with the help of Twilio technology.
Digital Platform (Publicly Accessible): Supporting the app is a digital platform that provides a central database for all bee-related information and data; including that being collected by the app. Information collected on bee sightings is logged in real-time and can be viewed via the website. An interactive map and dashboard enables users to filter data as relevant to their interests – including for example, geographical location, time of day, species of bee, type of hive etc, with the option of adding supplementary environmental information such as air quality, temperature, habitat areas etc.
– Digital Platform (Privately Managed): A secondary function of the digital platform is to bring together and connect various user groups (such as government, bee keeping associations, conservation groups and decision makers) to share their research, data and findings through open collaboration. This component of the platform is to be managed privately, with relevant datasets being collated and made available for public observation.
Our team was presented the innovation award for ‘the proposition that was most likely to excite the general public’. As a prize we were each given a Raspberry Pi – which by that stage of the weekend I was quite proud to have learnt (albeit slightly disappointed) that this was not something that could be eaten, but rather more of a ‘mini-computer’.
Despite my initial reluctance to attend the hackathon, I thoroughly enjoyed the weekend and I would certainly recommend it to other designers wanting to learn more about the back-end of application development. It was a great opportunity to network and learn from others who are as equally passionate about data, and to take myself well outside of my comfort zone.
Now… if only I could figure out how to work my prize…
Kate is a urban designer working at in London at a finding and graphic design company Manyard.