Amy Guy

Raw Blog

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Smart Data Hack #ilwhack

I spent a good deal of time during January and February helping to organise a couple of Open Data oriented events.  At least, that's the excuse I'm sticking to for not having done much of my PhD in that time.

The Smart Data Hack, also known as ILWhack (Innovative Learning Week* hack) came first, between the 18th and 22nd of February.

* Innovative Learning week at the University of Edinburgh is an annual week of off-timetable activities for students, designed to enhance their learning experience.  Arguably every week in higher education should be innovative and striving provide the best possible education...  And Innovative Learning implies the student should be making the special effort and I don't think many would be happy with the idea of paying so their tutors can have a week off, so maybe Innovative Teaching week would be more... better.  But that aside.

The hack was targeted at first and second year undergraduates in Informatics on the basis that third and fourth years would be busy with final projects.  This was by no means a restriction however, and we harboured hopes of enticing along design students and data buffs from other departments to mix up the skill set a bit as well.

I knocked up a website with two primary functions.

  1. Students could pre-register, add some info about themselves and start to form teams online.
  2. Anyone interested in getting involved who wasn't a student could figure out where they might fit in and get in touch.  This included people who could sponsor prizes, present real-world challenges to solve, offer data to be wrangled, or provide technical support to participants.
We anticipated about 50 students, and invited them to form teams of up to 5.

In parallel with gathering sponsorship, we came up with five prize categories of equal merit:
  • Best for travel
  • Best for health and wellbeing
  • Best for communities
  • Best visualisation or UI
  • (First year prize for) Best data mashup
We hoped to encourage students to make whatever they wanted, using whatever technologies they wanted, with use of open (or specially provided) data being favourably looked upon. 

Skyscanner were the first main sponsor on board, pledging prizes for two categories and some massive datasets that aren't usually public and access to internal APIs, as well as engineers to mentor.

We partnered with ALISS to encourage use of their local health and wellbeing data API; ALISS also sponsored in part a prize category.

The City of Edinburgh Council were on board with some never-before-seen downloadable datasets (still online!), a bunch of pre-approved API keys and refreshingly open minds and supportive attitudes.

CompSoc heroically sponsored an entire prize category and promoted the event to its members.

Open Innovation sponsored a prize category too, and the School of Informatics contributed towards prizes and catering.

Greener Leith proposed a challenge and sponsored a special Mosque Kitchen lunch for everyone after the mid-point presentations on Wednesday.

We were able to hold some terrific practical workshops, thanks to:
  • Tom Armitage and Stuart MacDonald, for handling geolocated resources.
  • Philip Roberts, for data visualisation with d3.js.
  • Oli Kingshott, for an introduction to version control, and HTML5 for beginners.
We also recruited mentors from UG4 and PhD students, as well as industry professionals, who were consistently present in the hacking space all week or available by Twitter, email and IRC.

We marketed the event in the couple of weeks prior (though we were organising up to the very last minute) through shout outs in lectures, posters around the Informatics department, emails to many university mailing lists and word of mouth.

As a result, we overshot our expected numbers, with well over 100 sign-ups by the start of the week.  This was good news and bad news at the time, as we had to scramble around to make sure we had enough sponsorship to feed everyone and whatnot.

By the end of the week, there were around 80 students still actively participating, across about 25 teams.  Pretty good!  Most of them were Informatics undergraduates as expected, but we had a handful of postgraduates and students from the ECA as well.

And the outcome?

Some amazing projects and really positive feedback from participants and supporters alike.

Naturally only a couple of days passed before somebody noticed that I hadn't sanitized input fields on the website for HTML and CSS input, so they made the projects page spin and play the Harlem Shake before I sorted that out, having been alerted at around midnight. /grumble.  Should have seen that coming, of course.

In the end we gave away £1500 in Amazon vouchers, five Nexus 7s and ten Kindle Fires.  Skyscanner even upped their sponsorship to three prizes because they were so spoilt for choice.

It was a really exciting and inspiring week for everyone involved.  Many of the students are taking their projects further (which is probably the most important outcome) and are in discussions with relevant parties to do so.

Will we do it again next year?  From the feedback gathered, the response has been a resounding yes!