Smart urbanism

Event Debrief: Air Quality Hackathon June 2015

WHEN: 13th and 14th June 2015
WHERE: Future Cities Catapult, Urban Innovation Centre

Over 60 technologists, urbanists, designers and environmental experts descended to our first hackathon with a common goal: to come up with original ways of tackling air quality problems in cities. Our aim was to run an event that wouldn’t merely focus on the data; we wanted to involve subject matter experts and people with a diverse range of skills from different domains to produce creative and inventive solutions that were focused on the challenges.

We started with a few talks to inspire the participants. Tim Brooke (Head of Making at Future Cities) kicked off proceedings by presenting the ethnographic research project that the Future Cities’s Insights Team ran into people’s perceptions of air pollution.

Presentation during Hackathon at Urban Innovation Centre

This was followed by three great talks from environmental experts – firstly Professor Frank Kelly (King’s College London) spoke about London’s history of air pollution, the effects of various pollutants on people’s health and why we need to act, then Dr Jo Barnes (UWE) talked about the impact of UK and European regulation on how air quality is managed locally. Samantha Heath (London Sustainability Exchange) introduced some of the fantastic work her team has done with communities across London.

Carlos and Richard from Data Science London then went through the datasets that were available and laid down the challenge – to create a prototype tool that could either help people understand the causes or effects of air pollution, help reduce short car journeys in cities and encourage more active mobility, or to help policymakers make more informed decisions around air quality.

Suitably inspired, we tucked into a great lunch provided by Clerkenwell Kitchen and groups started to form. We were impressed by how quickly people got into teams and started coming up with some original ideas. Our multi-talented team of experts were on hand to guide the groups in the development of their ideas, including Jo Barnes (LSx), several of the Future Cities’ Lab Team (Tim, Gyorgyi Galik, Rudi Ball and Alan Waldock).  We were grateful to also have Irini Papadimitriou (V&A Museum) and Michael Floyd with us on the Sunday, as well as John Lynch (Future Cities Catapult) and Han Pham (Intel Corporation) to introduce the opportunities for people to get involved in the OrganiCity programme. They facilitated the capture of each project using the OrganiCity Futures Canvas to break down the proposed concept into the necessary component parts of a scenario.

One of the Hackathon teams

After a day and a half of solid brainstorming, development and coding fuelled by copious amounts of snacks, the teams presented their finished ideas:

  • TrackAir scooped the main prizes with their app to map people’s exposure to air pollution as well as their impact on it using data from the London Air API and GPS phone data. This included a Strava-style competition element for people to compete to reduce their ‘air quality footprint’.

  • Koffing and Wheezing came up with an app to humanise air quality data by equating it to numbers of cigarettes smoked or numbers of sick days saved. It includes an option to see opportunities for taking action locally.

  • Total Exposure devised a personal pollution exposure counter using data from people’s mobile phones, which could be linked to Oyster card data to make more informed transport choices.

  • PollPoll’s idea was based on sentimental analysis of Twitter data to understand the human perception of air pollution in order to compare it to reality, for use by psychologists, researchers and the general public.

  • ECO Path London looked at how to reduce school bus numbers by improving links between the cycle superhighway network and schools.

  • Project Dave proposed a model of freight consolidation centres to reduce the number of deliveries to businesses and therefore the level of air pollution from traffic, and act as a ‘compare the market’ service for freight consumers.

  • Admission Weather came up with a web app to predict hospital admissions based on peaks in air pollution.

  • Skywalker devised HAQI (human air quality indicator), a tool for employers to measure indoor air pollution and visualise its effects on employees.

TrackAir won £500 in cash (courtesy of Microsoft and Elastacloud) and 10 days of consultancy from the Future Cities Catapult’s Lab Team to develop their idea further. Microsoft also offered cloud computing vouchers and USB sticks to everyone who took part in the hackathon.

We’re grateful to all participants, speakers and mentors for their commitment and creativity in making it a great event. We’re looking forward to working with TrackAir to take their idea to the next stage!

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