Hackathon – a rapid way to innovate new business opportunities

What is a hackathon, what can you gain? What we learned from co-hosting a hackathon.

Text by Claus Madvig Petersen, Head of Department, Existing Bridges and Monitoring, Rambøll

The Hackathon method is used when new concepts need to be developed. A Hackathon focuses on a specific topic or quantity of data. For this hackathon, participants used data from the Great Belt’s high and low bridges. It was quite deliberate from the outset not to opt for one aspect or similar for the four participating groups. The groups comprised four participants, two from Rambøll Danmark A/S, and the rest from either DTU, ITU or the Alexandra Institute. The composition was based on the premise that all groups should have a certain amount of insight into the disciplines that all 16 participants were asked to contest. The participants were selected through a screening process whereby the various organisations were asked for suitable participants. It was then up to the project leaders to select the right participants based on the basic idea of ensuring diversity in each group.

The direction that the groups chose was therefore entirely up to them. The groups’ direction, i.e. the concept direction, depended in part on the participants’ backgrounds, but also on a slightly more random analysis of the data as it was not possible to delve into all the data. The Sund & Bælt data came from a large section of the sensors attached to the bridge to measure everything from the oscillation of the suspension cables to the number of bridge bearing movements.

Prior to the hackathon day when the participants were assigned seven hours to “hack”, a so-called brown bag meeting – an introductory meeting – was held one week before at which the Sund & Bælt case regarding the collected data was presented to the participants. One week after the hackathon day, the participants had to pitch their ideas to a panel of judges that comprised technicians and business-focused individuals from Sund & Bælt and Rambøll Danmark A/S. The panel included Sund & Bælt’s Technical Director, Lars Fuhr Pedersen, and Rambøll Danmark A/S’ Transport Director Asger Knudsen.

The amount of data was analysed in different ways.

Team Yellow concluded that Sund & Bælt would benefit from installing a weighing machine at each end of the Great Belt Bridge to weigh traffic. This was because the group believed that the traffic load to which the bridge was exposed was lacking in the data. The group also believed that the weighing machine, combined with already installed sensors, would provide Sund & Bælt with an accurate picture of how the traffic load impacts the bridge.

Team Purple presented their journey through their data analysis. They did not fully analyse a specific quantity of data, but their method gave a good insight into how difficult it can be to determine a course of action and find the direction. The group also showed that part of the idea of a hackathon is to dare to try out different ideas and their example showed that they continued to search for something specific that they believed could be worth investigating.

Team Green, in the manner of Group 2, presented their journey through the data, but contrary to Group 2, this group came to the conclusion that it could be interesting to investigate the bearings on the low bridge. Their short survey produced an estimate as to when the bearings should be replaced.

Team Pink focused on how data can be used to project the maintenance requirements for the Great Belt’s high and low bridges. The Group presented how the projected data can be compared with real-time data.

The four groups came up with various investigations and with more implementation-ready ideas than others.

The judging panel selected the idea that Team Yellow had provided – the installations of traffic weighing machines – because, among other things, the idea is easy to implement.

One topic that also featured in the panel’s assessment was the groups’ ability to communicate. The ability to debate is an essential ingredient of a hackathon, to be able to present the idea that the group has come up with. The group should be seen as a small company where a diversity of skills is important.  Someone should have an overview of the quantity of data, someone should be inventive, someone should be able to delve into the selected idea and argue for the idea at a technical level and someone should be able to present the idea. This does not mean that a group should comprise the four distinct types: in fact, each group’s members should probably have an element of all the various aspects, just at varying degrees.

One of the strengths of a hackathon is that it is possible to check whether there are any good concepts that need to be explored further after only a day’s work on the data. The outcome of the hackathon is nowhere near conclusive, but the concept is in place.

This hackathon has shown several leading people in the organisations involved a new way of working with existing data and I am sure that, going forward, we will start seeing more of these types of events as developments in computing happen at an extremely fast pace. And a hackathon is the means by which to investigate whether a quantity of data can contribute to something new for the organisation.

Another time, a hackathon with groups from an even greater cross-section of different professionals could be interesting. What would the groups have come up with if they had comprised professionals with a background in computer science, anthropology, psychology and journalism?



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