ZOIS supporting UniVie Hackathon in Vienna

We had the pleasure to support the Citizen Science Meets Societal Challenges Hackathon in Vienna, late September. Here is the interview with us, Tobias Reckling, Team Manager Knowledge Exchange & National Funding at University of Vienna and Artemii Novoselov, Researcher PhD Candidate at the University of Vienna. The interview was conducted by Edward Loades from Black Cliff Media Ltd. More about the Hackathon can be found here.


Edward: Can you please tell us very simply about what exactly is the hackathon?

Artemii: I think it’s very important to emphasise the short history of it. The hackathon originated from groups of people who were interested in particular topics like computers or networks, but who didn’t have any opportunity to exercise it on a commercial scale because no one really understood what they were doing. They came up with this idea of joining together and making some IT products in a very limited time. They would meet for example for a weekend and would take it upon themselves to solve one particular problem. Hackathon is basically this sort of harsh deadline event, where you have identified some particular problems or you have your own ideas which you want to address and you are supposed to create a prototype of a solution in a very short amount of time.

Tobias: We had our particular approach to hackathon. We asked people to find digital solutions for society challenges, no particular IT challenges, but challenges like issues; ageing, society, environmental issues or sustainable cities. Therefore, we invited the City of Vienna and an NGO called SD Watch (Sustainable Development Watch) to present what are current challenges for the City of Vienna in terms of the need for digital solutions. This was the starting point for our hackathon.

Edward: Thank you. Could you please tell us why was the University of Vienna supporting it in the first place?

Tobias: Mainly because fostering knowledge exchange and transfer from university, academia, to the outside world; to NGOs, society, economy or politics, is the central aim of University of Vienna. University of Vienna is coordinating with knowledge transfer centre East mentioned project which specifically aims at supporting this kind of knowledge transfer.

Artemii: Also, we already had a hackathon on a very small scale last year. I convinced my professor in the department to give me some funds and a room. So I can fill it with some wonderful people and create something nice and interesting. It was on a much smaller scale and pretty much based inside our department. Still it had a great success. We developed some nice projects and I got a chance to present them on the bigger conference and then this idea got supported by the university.

Tobias: One important aspect, which should be highlighted is that the title of the hackathon was “Citizen Science Meets Society Challenges”. Citizen science is a scientific method where non-researcher citizens are actively involved in research projects by collecting and interpreting data. All projects which were developed during the hackathon were supposed to have a citizen science aspect, meaning that we should be open for the participation of citizens in these projects.

Edward: Thank you. What was the scale of the event this year? How many teams were involved?

Artemii: This year, we had three teams, consisting of five to six people, and one team was actually just two people. We had three teams pitching their ideas and presenting their results at the end of the hackathon. As far as I’m aware, one of the teams is actually getting real traction from the city of Vienna. They’re consulting with them on how to best implement their idea on the actual city scale.

Edward: Which one was the winner, successful pitch?

Artemii: They had a project called Greenovation. Their idea was to develop an app that empowers local communities to suggest things about their own streets about their own inhabitants, for example if you want to have instead of a parking lot some greenery on your street, you can suggest it and then other people in this community would be able to vote on this project. At the same time, it allows the City of Vienna to suggest things to local communities and receive a feedback whether people actually want this thing to happen in their district.

The project, that is actually getting the most traction from the City of Vienna is an app that allows you to select your symptoms of the sickness and to choose the priority you have on the call to the ambulance. Instead of just waiting for the operator you can, using visually presented information and choices, identify how much of priority your call has right now. We all know that because of COVID-19, all of the operators are overloaded with the calls and this app sort of lifts this pressure from the operators of emergency services.

Edward: In terms of the support that Zero Outage Industry Standard provided, could you outline exactly what that involved and how you supported the initiative? 

ZOIS Representative: We were contacted by Tobias saying, that there’s an opportunity to support this. As we at ZOIS believe that we not only take, but also give, I put this to the government board and there was a big acceptance of us supporting this initiative. We had volunteers on premises, but due to COVID- 19, I still managed to engage people from Banco Itau from Brazil, who via Zoom supported one of the teams. This team was working on an app that allows old people who feel lonely to connect to other people who don’t feel alone so that they can close this loneliness gap, especially during the COVID crisis. People from Banco Itau gave the team some tips on how to proceed. I supported a team working with user stories and how to do an agile approach on doing software development. I could explain a little bit and then I was just going around and answering questions or passing them to other experts who I had on email and on phone calls. This was our support for the hackathon. I personally liked it a lot. You could see that those who had concrete ideas how to do things, they really made progress, and those who wanted to solve the world’s hunger did not go anywhere. It shows again, that if you have a concrete goal, you’re able to reach it. If you don’t, it’s hard because you don’t know in which direction you should head. From my point of view, it was a very fruitful and valuable two afternoons. I hope that in future if there’s something similar, that University of Vienna will approach us again. We are happy to help in the next hackathons as well as.

Edward: Tobias and Artemii, what do you think, what does the future look like for the hackathon and similar sort of initiatives coming up?

Tobias: One aspect that is great about hackathons is that it really helps if people are personally present, stay in one room and keep on working for two or three days on a project. Right now, because of COVID-19, that’s complicated. We are thinking about virtual alternatives. We are certainly already working with the City of Vienna on new ideas. We had a lot of partners involved in the hackathon; beside ZOIS, also the Natural History Museum, who do a lot of citizen science, a startup called Cortex, the faculty of geoscience, the City of Vienna and an another startup coding school UpLeveled. So I think with this partner network, it will certainly be possible to organise another event as soon as COVID-19 allows us to do so. Until then we are working on digital platforms that may support these knowledge exchange formats.

Artemii: I really believe that the format of hackathon can be applied to anything. In general, it is just a problem solving tool. It’s like brainstorming, but much more extensive. I think it’s a technique that should be used when a company or organisation or group of people wants to sort of step out of the boundaries of their own imagination, because hackathons usually mean diversity. We also saw it in our hackathon; there were researchers, anthropologists, coders and designers- all people, who don’t really have many opportunities to meet together in real life. Now, imagine that you work in a company, an established organisation, where everyone has his or her responsibilities and you have a hackathon inside of it. There would be so many ideas that would never be spoken otherwise and there would be so many people who can contribute greatly outside of the their domain of expertise. Because each one of us, apart from our main work-related skills, has some additional skills, additional ideas, additional contributions, that we might give to society. This is a great way to unlock this creativity and it’s also a great team building activity. I believe that the future is bright for hackathons. It’s been around for a while and it’s just getting more and more traction each year.

Tobias: The format actually fits to University of Vienna with 90,000 students of all disciplines except for medicine and engineering. It’s a great format to bring together young researchers from different disciplines who can give an input and for these interdisciplinary teams to actually develop something new.

Edward: Thank you Artemii. How has the cooperation between UniVie and ZOIS been so far? Both in regards to the hackathon and in general?

Tobias: Of course, it was great. I think we’ve cooperated already for two years now.

ZOIS Representative: Yes, it started with the cooperation on specific topics. We did something on the topic of network with Stefan Schmidt and on people skills with Renate Motschnig and we will continue working of diverse projects. I think it’s a quite fruitful relationship and I really enjoy it.

Tobias: We also very much enjoy the cooperation with ZOIS as the organisation really respects the aim of researchers and research at universities like University of Vienna, where publication and freedom of research are really important. It works very well and we hope for more co-operations in the future.

Edward: Excellent. Thank you so much for your time. Appreciate you’re very busy and very glad to hear that the hackathon was was successful.

Tobias: Thank you