A hackathon for everyone

05 March 2019 | General News
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Mr Tobias Leong, Data Scientist from GovTech Singapore delivering the opening address at the hackathon

A team of professors and students from the University Scholars Programme (USP) at NUS organised Data Journalism 2019 — USP’s first-ever data hackathon — from 16 to 17 February 2019 at Cinnamon College, University Town. 

In line with USP’s belief that applied learning should be accessible, inclusive and diverse in order to break down silos and allow for connections across disciplines, the hackathon was designed to be suitable for all students regardless of their technical background or expertise. The event aimed to challenge the perception that hackathons are the domain of computer programmers and software developers. With the explosion of data in the digital age, the ability to interpret data and communicate the insights to a broad audience is a valuable asset – one that combines the skills of good data scientists and journalists. By focusing on honing the skill of communicating data-driven insights, the organising team hoped to lower the perceived barriers of entry.

The innovative approach attracted about 80 undergraduate participants from a diverse range of disciplines and faculties — most of whom had never participated in a hackathon before and close to half, female. Teams were given the opportunity to access open-sourced data and create three-minute news video stories that presented data-driven insights on salient societal issues that mattered to them. 

We designed this data hackathon to be accessible to all students, so that they can build their own resilience to change, some through sharpening technical ability, but many more through sharpening their ability to think about and with data. So it does not matter which team won. It is about having the courage to try new things. In the long term, building resilience will be key to their ability to adapt in their careers and in life. The quality of the video submissions exemplifies their resilience, and through this, we hope they learned that curiosity, ingenuity and insight will play a great part in their future success.

USP Lecturer Dr Charles Burke, a member of the organising team said, “As Singapore gears towards becoming a smart nation, some disciplines are naturally more resilient to the changes brought by it through their technical abilities. We designed this data hackathon to be accessible to all students, so that they can build their own resilience to change, some through sharpening technical ability, but many more through sharpening their ability to think about and with data. So it does not matter which team won. It is about having the courage to try new things. In the long term, building resilience will be key to their ability to adapt in their careers and in life. The quality of the video submissions exemplifies their resilience, and through this, we hope they learned that curiosity, ingenuity and insight will play a great part in their future success.” 

Of the 17 videos that were submitted to the judging panel, “Left-handed Problem” emerged the winner. The project explored the day-to-day challenges, as well as the more serious social problems — such as job discrimination and even sport safety issues — faced by left-handed people in a world designed for right-handed people.

Zheng Shanshan, a Year 2 USP and NUS Science student from the winning team shared, “Data analytics is not just about playing with data and finding insights. More importantly, it is about presenting data findings in a way that people with no technical background can understand. A novel way of doing so is through storytelling. As a data science student, this hackathon has given a brand new perspective to my analytics journey and will also influence future projects that I will embark on.”

During the two-day event, students also had the chance to hear from data scientists and communications experts from the government and private sectors such as GovTech Singapore, the Urban Redevelopment Authority, Google Singapore and IBM Asia Pacific. 

Mr Tobias Leong, Data Scientist from GovTech Singapore, in his opening address, shared about the importance of having data analytical skills. He said, “It is not just about technology. It is not just about data. It is about how you piece them together, and everybody can do it.” Ms Jodie Sangster, Chief Customer Officer of IBM Asia Pacific spoke on “The Power of Storytelling” and highlighted that tech companies are increasingly recognising the need for “middle people” — those that can understand data-driven insights and communicate them to a general audience. Mr Glenn Low, Senior Strategist at Google Singapore explained how data and technology is used to compliment all disciplines, “to cross pollinate ideas and synergise across streams to create possibilities beyond what can be imagined.” 

Many of the speakers also lent their skills by mentoring the participants as they explored data sets and identified issues to delve into for their news video stories. Among the mentors were USP alumni Mr Jackie Tan, Co-founder of fundMyLife, a platform that connects consumers with financial advisors, and Ms Gwyneth Teo, a producer-journalist from Channel NewsAsia. Both played a significant role in the success of USP’s first-ever data hackathon. 

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USP alumnus Mr Jackie Tan (first from right) and Dr Burke (2nd from right, partially hidden) listening to participants as they discussed data sets and identified issues to work on

By the NUS University Scholars Programme