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Spending a weekend at the Good (A)Idea Hackathon

  • The Good (A)Idea Hackathon took place recently at Queen's University Belfast's Computer Science building, challenging teams of developers to explore the use of AI to do good in the world. We frequently hear horror stories about AI causing unintentional harm, such as Microsoft's twitter chatbot that very quickly turned racist or Amazon's AI-based recruitment tool that was accidentally sexist, but AI is just a tool. In the right hands, artificial intelligence and machine learning can promote positive change in the world.

    The hackathon was designed for both existing AI enthusiasts and relative newcomers who just want to learn more about the technology, and over 100 people turned up to the sites in Belfast and Derry to take part. Many of those attending were students at the university who already had exposure to AI and the tools and technologies being used, some came prepared with an established team and an idea, and some just came to learn more about AI.

    I definitely fell into the "learn more about AI" camp, having graduated with a masters degree in computer science almost ten years ago when the technology was in its infancy and the Computer Science building was still called the Bernard Crossland Building. I've been working in the game development industry ever since, with my exposure to artificial intelligence being limited to the kind of AI that directs virtual spaceship battles and a little natural language and image processing.

    Sponsorship has changed hackathons:

    The first thing I was struck by was how well-organised this Hackathon was, and the numbers it managed to attract. The hackathons I remember were just a few people crammed into a room trying to make a Raspberry Pi do something neat, living on delivery pizza and regular Starbucks runs. The Good (A)Idea was a far more professional affair, with workshops and mentors available for those who needed help and full catering on both days of the event.

    I suppose that's the level of polish that sponsorship from industry brings, and holy hell was this event ever sponsored. Seagate, Kainos, Hays Recruiting, Pramerica, School of AI, Intel, Amazon AWS, Queen's University Belfast, Huawei, Invest Northern Ireland, Ulster University, Hackily, AI NI, and the biggest sponsor Bazaarvoice. I can tell you that when the Northern Ireland game development industry put on similar events such as the Global Game Jam, sponsors like these are nowhere to be seen.

    The level of support on offer was huge:

    As far as hackathons go, this one came with a wealth of support. Organisers AI NI ran workshops to help explore the tools and techniques used in AI, and mentors were on hand to help teams throughout the event. Queen's University Belfast and Ulster University Magee provided spaces to hold the event in, and everything was organised through a Slack channel to keep the Belfast and Derry sites connected.

    AI startup Peltarion gave everyone access to its new deep learning platform, and several companies also provided large pre-processed data sets for attendees to explore and two pre-defined challenges. Main sponsor BazaarVoice brought real data from its integrated review platform and posed a genuine technical question it's currently facing: Can you use AI to separate the fake reviews from real ones?

    It's here that the Good (A)Idea hackathon really took on a different tone than those I've been to in years gone by. With so much industry involvement, you could see that eyes were on the teams who could solve these real challenges in the strict 2-day time frame. The event was almost part hackathon and part recruitment drive, with representatives from Hays Recruiting, Huawei's talent acquisition team, and Kainos all in attendance and keen to engage with the next generation of graduates early. There was even a CV Clinic for those looking for a career in the industry.

    Incentives, rewards, and some cool projects:

    Though the event was announced without the mention of prizes, it was revealed in the opening presentation that there were thousands of pounds to be won for the top three teams and spot prizes for teams that helped others. It was a nice surprise, as everyone attending was really only there to work on some interesting AI problems.

    Teams pitched to a panel of experts privately on the final day of the event and the winners were announced in a closing ceremony, but there was surprisingly no mention of what the actual projects they'd worked on were. The absence of information on each of the projects may have been due to time constraints at the end of the project, though.

    I got chatting with some of the teams in attendance and others shared their ideas on the Slack channel after the event. One team created software that uses AI to help people learn to spell their names in British Sign Language via a webcam. Another sought to undo the algorithmic oppression of social media platforms by importing all of your feeds and allowing you to teach an AI what you really want to see via hand-curation.

    One of the joint first place winners actually completed their AI model training mid way through the first day, producing a model that could tell fake reviews from real ones with almost 95% accuracy. They spent the rest of the time developing a cloud deployment of the AI and a Chrome browser extension that could use it to detect fake reviews on any website. In two days, they solved one of Bazaarvoice's current development problems and produced a viable commercial product. The standard of the output from the two-day hackathon was quite impressive.

    Conclusions and reflections:

    The Good (A)Idea Hackathon was fantastically well organised, and shows the commitment of the local tech industry in supporting upcoming graduates with an interest in AI, but that support definitely came with a heavy overtone of talent acquisition. The event felt very much geared toward students and recent graduates, and multiple people at the event said they had recruitment on the mind during the challenges. For many attendees, this event was an opportunity to stand out from the crowd and advance their careers.

    The hackathon was originally about developing cool projects using AI to benefit society, and I couldn't help feeling that it ended without delivering that feel-good factor (perhaps in part due to the time constraints and focus on prizes). It was extremely impressive to see some of the teams lock themselves away for a weekend and emerge with something truly innovative, though, and I think everyone at the event got a lot out of it.

    Artificial intelligence is a difficult topic for a newcomer to dip their toe into in just a weekend. Collecting and processing a large enough data set to train an AI could take up an entire weekend by itself, not to mention learning to use the tools, libraries and frameworks required to build something cool with it. As someone who graduated from Computer Science nearly ten years ago and has had limited experience with AI, I still found the event very useful for gaining exposure to the tools used today and for helping to identify the kinds of problems that AI could be used to solve.

    What really makes events like this shine is the contacts you can make, both with other developers in the field and stakeholders in industry. Hackathons sponsored by industry may have a more corporate feel about them, but they also have enormous potential to bring industry and talent together. They equip developers with access to data, tools, and expertise that wouldn't ordinarily be available to them, and give them a laser-focus and tight deadline to make something awesome happen.

    About the author

    Brendan is a Sync NI writer with a special interest in the gaming sector, programming, emerging technology, and physics. To connect with Brendan, feel free to send him an email or follow him on Twitter.

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