Hackathons: a smart solution to social problems

10/05/2017 10:10 / Author: Miriam van der Sangen / Masja de Ree / Category: Innovation and development
For a few years now, Statistics Netherlands (CBS) researchers have been regular participants in 'hackathons'. During these events, they collaborate with researchers and developers from other organisations, deploying (big) data and smart software as a means to create solutions to various social problems. Last February, CBS researcher Mirela Causevic joined the international Dutch Blockchain Hackathon to explore new applications for blockchain technology; in March, statistical researchers Edwin de Jonge, Marco Puts and Ole Mussman took part in Eurostat's Big Data Hackathon. Causevic and De Jonge told us more about the surprising results.

Dutch Blockchain Hackathon

Between 10 and 12 February 2017, over 350 entrepreneurs and programmers from all over the world gathered in Groningen City's startup factory 'The Big Building' for the Dutch Blockchain Hackathon. During this major international event, dozens of teams launched prototypes for new application breakthroughs in the field of blockchain technology. Blockchain – a new class of internet technology – is essentially a chain of databases which together manage a copy of a register. Through this network, official transactions can be encrypted and signed. Only when all participating institutions agree on the transaction will it be added to the database. This makes it extremely difficult to commit fraud. A blockchain application can enhance many centralised and undisclosed registers and databases in terms of user-friendliness, speed of processing and transparency. CBS is currently studying the possibilities of using this type of new technology for its statistics production.

Technological opportunities

Mirela Causevic, whose work at CBS involves this research topic, took part in the Dutch Blockchain Hackathon. 'Prince Constantijn was present during the opening and he stressed the importance of exploring blockchain. He stated that we now have the technological capabilities to make significant steps forward. Thematic areas included international trade and entrepreneurship, the chain in the pension sector of the future, the energy transition, digital identity and public service delivery. For each thematic area, there was 10,000 euros in awards (7,500 euros for the winner and 2,500 for the runner-up)'. Sponsors included the National Office for Identity Data, the Dutch Chamber of Commerce, Dutch pension fund consultants APG, energy supplier Nuon and natural gas supplier Gasunie. Included in the jury were the influential Dutch scientists cum business leaders Alexander Rinnooy Kan and Lex Hoogduin.

Identification

During the hackathon, a number of interesting blockchain applications were presented. 'The municipality of Zuidhorn developed an app which social organisations can use to introduce their services to the public. For example, people in need of informal care in their neighbourhood can find all available services listed there, so they can contact them without intervention from the municipal authorities', says Causevic. 'One of the winning teams had developed a blockchain application around personal identification; a kind of platform on which people, also for instance refugees, could save and update their personal details.' Causevic herself was also part of a team working on digital identity. In addition, she joined a master class before the hackathon. 'The content was new to me, but very interesting, not something easily found online’. The main topic was: which aspects need to be considered in the development of a product which has to be hacker-proof?' 

 ‘The Swedish team, for example, had created a kind of Tinder for job seekers’  

Labour market

Between 13 and 15 March, 3 statistical researchers from CBS were in Brussels to investigate – together with a delegation from 21 other European countries – how to tackle the discrepancy between supply and demand in the labour market. Edwin de Jonge: ‘ Eurostat made a number of large datasets available to the teams so they could work on this policy question.’ One of the datasets contained 22 million job vacancies collected on the Internet by webscrapers, other datasets contained figures collected from European public employment services such as the Dutch UWV, with vacancies and CVs of job applicants. In addition, there was background information available on the labour market, income and living conditions in various countries.

Dashboard

The CBS team decided to zoom in on the European public employment services and built a dashboard showing the existing ratio between vacancies and applicants in each European region. ‘We had to overcome a number of challenges. For instance, the CV database was a lot smaller than the vacancy database. We used statistical methods to try and eliminate this imbalance.’ The team deployed Spark software in order to perform the heavy computations. The hackathon participants had two days to work out their ideas. ‘It was tight’, says de Jonge. ‘We worked all through the night and yet were unable to carry out all our plans, but at least we have our dashboard. It’s one of the nice things about a hackathon: it’s a pressure cooker, with lots to learn and accomplish within a very short timespan.’

Competition

The CBS team took a statistical approach to the chosen topic. ‘We mainly looked at the question whether there is truly such a discrepancy between vacancies and labour force. We used statistical data and visualisation in the form of this dashboard in order to substantiate our theory. It was fun to see what the other teams came up with. The Swedish team, for example, had created a kind of Tinder for job seekers. The Croatians (who won the hackathon) had geared their approach to actual policymaking; for instance, improve the situation in the labour market through education.’ The results of the hackathon were judged by an international jury with representatives from the European Commission and large multinationals including Amazon and IBM, the latter faciltators and sponsors of the hackahton event. The fact that the event took the form of a competition was a disadvantage according to De Jonge: ‘There was less exchange between countries as a result. Perhaps by working together, we could have achieved even more and learned from each other as well.’ Eurostat was so enthusiastic about the hackathon that it announced more of these events in the future.