UN hackathon produces surprising results

/ Author: Miriam van der Sangen
© Hollandse Hoogte / David Rozing
From 5 to 7 September 2017, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) organised a virtual hackathon on ‘Telling stories with SDG data’. Fifteen teams from nine different countries participated out of their own workplace. Across various time zones, they took on the challenge of inventing an innovative product for the general public about the younger generation (15 to 24 years) and their relation to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Barteld Braaksma, Innovation Manager at Statistics Netherlands (CBS), co-organised the event on behalf of Statistics Netherlands (CBS) and the UN’s Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), while CBS Divisional Director Hanneke Imbens was one of the judges who reviewed the entries.


Thérèse Lalor, one of the organisers of the virtual hackathon and also working at UNECE: ‘The main reason for organising this virtual hackathon was that, as indicated by the High-Level Group for the Modernisation of Official Statistics, we should meet the needs of statistical offices in the field of ‘storytelling’and share experiences and knowledge. In this case, participants were asked to create an innovative visualisation appealing to a wider audience that would show young people between the ages of 15 and 24 who are neither in employment nor in education or training.’ This assignment was tackled by teams representing statistical offices from Ireland, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, the United Kingdom, Canada, Mexico and New Zealand as well as Eurostat.

Creativity and enthusiasm

As the Innovation Manager at CBS and UNECE, Barteld Braaksma was involved in developing the first rough ideas for this hackathon. As member of the organising committee, he attended several progress sessions together with the participants. He also contributed to the final assessment of the ideas submitted. ‘My contribution was mainly to serve as a sounding board for the organisers. Things went smoothly despite the fact that the hackathon had to be organised during the summer period and at short notice. I was surprised by the creativity, the enthusiasm and the concrete results shown by the teams. Some teams did run into some technical issues, and the time differences sometimes made communication trickier , but this event concept is definitely worth repeating and will likely even get a rerun on a yearly basis.’


‘This event concept is definitely worth repeating and will likely even get a rerun on a yearly basis’  


Innovation lab

One of the participating teams consisted of researchers from Statistics Canada and Global Affairs Canada (which maintains the country’s diplomatic and consular relations and promotes international trade on behalf of the Canadian government). They set to work at Statistics Canada’s newly opened innovation lab. Tabitha Williams of Statistics Canada explains: ‘We wanted to show how statistical organisations can reach out to young people and get them involved in SDGs. The hackathon allowed us to experiment with new technologies, tools and approaches.’ Eleanor Melanson of Global Affairs Canada adds: ‘We created a website on which users can answer quiz questions that appraise their individual priorities, their lifestyle and their preferences towards SDGs. Going through the site in a particular order, they will be able to determine their own degree of involvement with SDGs using data, videos, texts and visualisations. At the end of the quiz, the user can see his or her own SDG profile and use that for social media sharing.’

Surprising results

According to Lalor and Braaksma, the teams showed some remarkable and very different results within a timeframe of 64 hours. The judges including Hanneke Imbens shared this opinion: ‘The jury reviewed the entries on the basis of four different criteria: Did the product answer our question, what is its visual quality and creativity, what about the user experience, and how clear is the message to the general public? Apart from the jury, the general public were asked to vote for the most innovative product.’ Imbens is enthusiastic about the short timeframe in which the teams delivered videos and animations that were a technical, creative and innovative challenge. ‘Not every product was completed within those 64 hours, but three days of hard work did lead to very surprising results.’ At the end, the jury chose the winning teams on 15 September: Mexico, New Zealand and Poland.