Urban Prototyping London – Hackathon and Crackathon. April 25, 2013

Have you ever wanted to change the world through digital technologies? Over 100 participants had this in mind when they descended upon Imperial College London last weekend to take part in the UK’s first Urban Prototyping (UP London) Hackathon.

Multi-disciplinary teams of developers, programmers, technicians and designers competed for a chance to win over £100,000 worth of awards including up to £80,000 cash in follow on funding. Teams were challenged to create a technology based prototype that would result in real-world changes to either the environment, local economy or local community.

But what is a Hackathon?

Simply put, a Hackathon allows teams of hackers to ‘hack’ large data sets (such as weather / transport / traffic data) over a short amount of time, in this case one weekend. It’s the job of these teams to unravel and translate this data into a useable application that engages citizens.

A good example of this was at Urban Prototyping Singapore Hackathon in 2012 where one team of hackers were able design an algorithm that interpreted live car park traffic data. The team created ‘SurePark’, a mobile application allowing users to reserve parking spots in the city centre (the same way you would book seats in a cinema). The applications predictive modeling allows users to book the next available slot and can also predict pending rush-hour traffic in specific lots within a 24-hour period.

Imperial’s Digital City Exchange research programme played a vital role in the UP London’s Hackathon primarily by deploying WikiSensing, the Discovery Sciences Group and DCE sensor data management platform.

This was the first time WikiSensing had been demonstrated outside of the College and gave Hackathon teams the platform to access and retrieve queries from the massive datasets being hacked. Orestis Tsinalis, Digital City Exchange Research Assistant from Imperial College London’s Department of Computing said “It was a great experience opening up WikiSensing to the world at the UP London festival. We had valuable interactions with the participants in the Hackathon and the Crackathon events, and got a good grasp about the kinds of applications that can be built on top of our platform.”

With prizes included follow on funding as well as an all-expenses paid trip to Shanghai to present their concepts at the Smart City Forum of CIOs at Mobile Expo Asia in June, completion was fierce teams diligently working well into the early hours.

Primarily it’s important for the team to set realistic goals. From experience, a large number of competitors tend to get bogged down in finalising their prototypes. In most cases teams will be lucky to get something that actually works, rather than a finished product ready to be marketed to the masses. The point is to aim high but ensure that prototype v0.1 can be developed within a 48 hour window.

After a quick battery recharge teams reconvened Sunday morning to begin shaping their ideas into a working prototype. Ideas developed and pitched at the Hackathon ranged from crowd-sourced crisis maps to apps for easing landlord-tenant discussions. David Birch, Digital City Exchange Research Associate said: “There was a surprising breadth of proposals from concept pitches to the live demos. Challenges addressed ranged from lifesaving fire fighting sensors to helping tenants know the right thing to do when a pipe bursts in their flat, each aiming to improve the resilience of modern life to unexpected events using technology.”

After 48 hours of hacking, gaming, designing and with over 800 cups of tea and coffee consumed the judging panel were presented with prototypes such as “Project Glass” – a voice based payment mechanism using face-recognition/geolocation to “Suppa Power” – smart power monitoring & learning power habit, empowering consumers to ACT upon smart meters .

Judges, included representatives from Digital Shoreditch, CIKTN, Tech City, TSB, RCUK and the GSMA, were clearly impressed with the quality of the prototypes and with so many broad designs found it difficult picking a winner. Judge Kam Star from Digital Shoreditch said “the true success of these events are measured by the outcomes, we are delighted that so many amazing projects and ideas surfaced at the event and will be followed up.”

One teams lucky enough to secure £6,000 worth of follow on funding designed a sensor, small enough to fit inside a firefighter’s helmet, that monitors and warns firefighter of temperature surges. Sharp changes in temperature, such as a when a fire finds a fresh supply of oxygen, can be deadly and an early warning system could prove crucial to saving lives.

Ross Atkin from the winning team said “Given that firefighters already had audio alarms and that you don’t want to be confusing them visually, we needed a signal that would get through even if they were really stressed,” – “The positioning of it [the alarm] on the back of the neck was because we needed somewhere where the device could be exposed to ambient temperatures, but we had a reasonable route to a relatively sensitive part of the body.”

Post Hackathon came UP Londons Crackathon held on Monday 22nd April 2013. The Crackathon explored how secure and resilient to attacks urban digital technologies are. The main aim was to understand these issues and identify the research challenges in order to generate trust and long-term sustainability of ICT within urban areas.

Led by Dr Zeynep Gurguc, Digital City Exchange Research Associate the Crackathon challenged attendees to defend databases against malicious hacks. The three hacks set were as timed, prepared and full event challenges and tested the participants ability to create defences that were 100% impenetrable.

The Crackathon identified a family of cyber attacks far more difficult to detect than that of their counterparts identifying where extra funding and resources should be focused.

To conclude, both the Hackathon and Crackathon were hugely successful in terms of attendance, creativity, feedback and on the day buzz. With over 100 participants Hackathons are an ideal way of networking and engaging with the local tech community. While the organisation of these events can be demanding the real challenge comes with securing the ‘right’ kind of data. Teams will have much more space to be innovative when large amounts of new and diverse data exist.

The Hackathon was part of the Urban Prototyping London festival which was funded through the Digital Economy Networks. Led by Dr Catherine Mulligan UP London is held and between the 8th April and 26th June 2013. UP London expects to host over 300 developers, architects, designers, artists and technology specialists investigating the role of digital technologies in creating smart sustainable cities.

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