Q&A: Participating in the MIT COVID-19 Hackathon

Last weekend, Massachusetts Institute of Technology hosted a COVID-19 hackathon with a mission to protect vulnerable populations and help healthcare systems deal with the pandemic. 1904labs was thrilled to be able to support the challenge in two ways: ol-kit, our newly open-sourced geospatial framework developed with and for Bayer Crop Science, served as a supporting technology for the hackathon, and one of 1904’s geospatial software developers, Jake Stäzrad, served as a mentor. Jake shares his experience working with teams to identify tangible, immediate solutions to counteract the crisis.

MIT global COVID-19 hackathon

Why did you decide to join MIT’s hackathon? 

In the face of the ongoing health crisis, having been quarantined indoors for weeks with no relevant skills to contribute to the alleviation of the pandemic, I felt pretty helpless. When I saw the MIT COVID-19 Challenge announcement, I knew it was a perfect opportunity for me to use my skill-set as a software developer to make a positive impact. I went to apply as a participant of the hackathon but noticed a call for “supporting resources” on MIT’s site.

My team at 1904labs works on a contract for Bayer Crop Science, and we recently open-sourced our mapping framework, ol-kit (just a few weeks ago, recently!). Built on two open source libraries, OpenLayers (ol for short) and React, ol-kit is an easy-to-use map component library that lets developers quickly create and customize interactive maps for the web, like the Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases Map by Johns Hopkins that has gone viral itself. Johns Hopkins’ map is built with ESRI, a very nice and very expensive, proprietary mapping framework. Maps made with ol-kit are open source; no accounts, no API keys, no money required.

I submitted ol-kit as a support resource, and to my surprise, MIT emailed me back two days before the event saying they were really excited to have a geospatial mapping framework as a supporting material for the hackathon. Bayer Crop Science and 1904labs were eager to get more visibility for the tool, so we moved forward stewarding ol-kit for the weekend to support teams’ ideas. I was able to join as a mentor.

What was the hackathon like?

It was crazy. There was so much energy. The organizers, who were primarily students at MIT, put it together in just two weeks. It was entirely virtual. Friday afternoon, Slack was sizzling with notifications from waves of participants checking in with a greeting and a flag of the country they represent. It was inspiring to watch people from around the world meeting on Slack, forming teams, and collaborating on Zoom chats.

Participants had to pass an application process which included a short essay about their skillset and motivation. The accepted applicants formed 236 teams to take on the challenge. Participants ranged from grad and PHD students to professionals – representing each of the 24* time zones! Mentors were made up of professors, doctors, electrical engineers, biotech founders, well-accomplished individuals, and…myself.

What was it like being a mentor?

I felt unqualified! These were credentialled, experienced leaders with companies and letters behind their name; I didn’t go to school for comp sci — I learned to program from internet tutorials. Nevertheless, I was added to the mentor Slack channel where teams could ask for feedback and get advice. And since we were a supporting technology, ol-kit also got its own dedicated Slack channel alongside AWS. I was grateful to discover some teams with geospatially-oriented pitch ideas to which I could lend my resources.

What was the goal of the challenge? 

It seemed like the primary focus of the weekend was to pitch the judges on a realistic and implementable solution to the problem sets rather than write the code to solve the problem. Most of the tangibles from the weekend were proof-of-concepts, wireframes, screenshots, and mocks. I am connected with a few that are interested in using ol-kit now that their ideas are entering the real-world implementation phase.

What were some of the ideas you saw pitched and helped mentor? 

The challenge had eight tracks, each with its own goal such as locating personal protective equipment for frontline workers or integrating people who have overcome the virus back into society. Winning teams get $500 along with AWS credits to implement their idea. And while the judges only select the top four pitches from each track, every team is encouraged to pursue their ideas or contribute to another after the competition.

One of the ideas that stands out was called Waze Essentials. Waze uses crowdsourced reports to update traffic information. Waze Essentials would crowdsource changes in business hours, wait times, and supplies available at essential businesses.

Another team I assisted wanted to put together a dashboard as a resource for small government municipalities to compare and learn from the effects of the pandemic on cities of similar sizes.

A few pitches used machine learning algorithms with geolocation history data to calculate the probability that a user has come in contact with COVID-19 to more efficiently utilize tests on likely carriers.

What comes next for the teams that participated? 

MIT is keeping the Slack open for three months. Mentors continue to be available to help as teams begin implementation.

For us, we got some great feedback on ol-kit. The doc site was really well received, and the software itself was an appreciated open-source alternative to Google Maps.

Did you have any big takeaways from your experience as a mentor?

Honestly, at times, I felt out of my league because everyone participating was so intelligent and talented. It was amazing that no one really knew one another beforehand, but they just jumped in to start collaborating. The experience made me feel like I was among a top tier group of brilliant minds from around the world. I learned a lot from all of them this weekend.

I was glad to be able to add something to the incredibly motivated teams that I mentored during the process. This hackathon brought so many people all with different backgrounds together to work towards the same goal. I’m glad I was a part of that.

I’m also grateful to Bayer Crop Science. Four years ago, 1904labs started building the internal mapping framework with BCS for their agricultural field department, and for the last year and a half, key players at both organizations worked together to get ol-kit open sourced. Our champion, Shaun Diltz, has been instrumental in making that happen. This hackathon gave us a huge opportunity to get the tool more visibility and help people build effective projects. I’m thankful that MIT saw the potential in our software to include us as part of the hackathon. I’m excited to see so many impactful ideas become reality.


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