Hacking at the hurdles
From gimmick to reality, hackathons have come of age. Stevie Knight reports
The hackathon, long used by big organisations like Microsoft to fish for innovation, might hold the key to transforming some of ports’ perennial problems.
Portbase’s Dennis Dortland for one has high hopes that Rotterdam's World Port Hackathon might shake up a few long-standing issues.
At first, they don’t really appear to be issues – at least in the usual sense: Portbase is a successful, non-profit Dutch port community system used by a broad swathe of stakeholders. But as Mr Dortland points out, “being an established data hub processing over 80m messages a year can mean we are blinded by information. It’s hard to see beyond what we do now."
Most importantly, “the core value we build, what we have to maintain at all costs, is our position of trust”. He adds it’s not simply a matter of faith in the community platform’s technology: more fundamental than that “is trust in our neutrality”.
“As a result we can’t be too entrepreneurial, or we would almost inevitably shift the dynamic in favour of one business or another,” he says. On top of which “there’s the trust that we won’t share our stakeholders’ data with their competitors”.
It makes for what he labels “a double-edged sword”. On one side, the system remains impartial, but on the other, it can result in stasis. It inevitably leads to a “big tension” says Mr Dortland who has seen data-sharing pilots slip away because they stood to breach the carefully maintained boundaries. So, he questions: “While we are protecting our community’s short term interests, how do we innovate for the future?”
Throwing off shackles
According to him, the Port Hackathon means “throwing off the shackles... and doing things we don’t necessarily have consensus for”. It’s a chance to show what can be achieved and change people’s minds, he adds. In fact, Mr Dortland was himself a participant in the 2016 event, and says it’s a free enough environment to allow Portbase to have a presence on both sides of the table; while inside knowledge is considered a resource, it’s not seen as an overwhelming advantage. "You really have to drop all your old, legacy ideas," he says.
In fact, WPH founder and director Léon Gommans points out that last year’s winners knew nothing about port operations before they came through the door and yet in 24 hours they had hit on giving containers blockchain passports to detect potential tampering. “A fresh approach can find that silver bullet,” he says.
Certainly this fifth, 2017 event was fizzing with energy: beds, made up dormitory style in a darkened area were often ignored as teams worked through the night. One of those staying up late was, in fact, not competing, but someone who admits the experience gets under the skin.
Thom Knepper and Vincent Metevelis earned second place in the 2016 Hackathon with an ‘airbnb’ style layover booking for vessels. It promised to be a real boon given the hours a ship will travel to a layup to wait for loading and the team went away to bring it to commerciality. But, Knepper admits “we stumbled... and switched focus when another project came up”.
However, a year later they’re back, not as entrants, but as one of the team of experts which gave them a foot in the door of the 2017 event. “There’s an explosive amount of creative energy here,” he says, “so when we’re not actively helping other people, we’re developing our own project.”
Possibly the most revolutionary concepts to come out of WPH17 are the ones that aim to change behaviour. “We learn best by playing. Gamification is about making it fun – that way, we go further,” says software engineer Alexander Chatzizacharias, introducing the event.
In fact, the hackers may be on the way to unpicking a few, traditionally knotty problems.
Take data sharing. Despite many aspirational speeches, keeping information close to the chest is still seen as a competitive advantage. Further, transparency would also put an end to agents blaming customs clearance when a shipment’s been bumped from a promised slot.
Team QQuest’s imaginative solution to the impasse is to provide a window that gathers information on a shipment – but most importantly, also shows where it’s missing and allows the data to be requested with a click: “In 44% of cases, someone in the supply chain has the information,” explains leader Erwin van Veldhoven. Of course, after a while it will become fairly obvious who’s willing and able to co-operate and the solution could go further by allowing potential customers to see which companies are likely to give a better response.
So, what about the age-old problem of a log-jammed city? Well, there’s an app for that. The ‘Care Bears’ answer incentivises responsible travel, returning a route that might not be the fastest but will minimise CO2 and congestion with different options for tourists, lorry drivers and commuters.
The app gives continuous feedback on how the journey’s going, and after completion, it awards points and shows how many people the choice has assisted. As a reduction of just 10% in traffic volume will significantly decrease rush-hour jams, the authorities might be tempted to offer a points reward of, for example an hour’s free public transport or parking.
Another hack focused on workboats, scoring tug operations for fuel and emissions efficiency based on AIS information – although the Searoutes team admitted development will require tidal data it could also be extended to other regular users including watertaxis, pilot boats, even bunker barges. As a result, not only would skippers become more aware of their impact and fuel bill, an open points system would create a ‘green’ competition.
Other ideas had a touch of the crystal ball. For example one solution predicts where accidents will occur based on recognisable patterns – saving an average 6.5 minutes on the response time by clever repositioning of officers, according to the Biggetjes hacking team.
Another mitigated the effect of disruption on the city’s main highway: melding datasets from road, rail, gas, water, communications and power infrastructure enables traffic to be rerouted before it gets to be a major headache. It should also mean more effective, better co-ordinated maintenance schedules, says Hagai Rossman of N^2, leaving behind the days when no sooner has a section of road been reopened after gas main works than a telecoms gang start their own dig.
Finally the ‘silver bullet’ from the winner, Dock Tech, is aimed at forecasting silt formation. This tool collects simple, low-res depth measurements from the numerous harbour boats transiting the port, which then get transformed by a Google ‘super resolution’ algorithm into a high res picture. A sequence will reveal sediment movement over time so, as Uri Yoselevich explains, a port could plan where dredging work will be needed “months ahead of schedule”.
BRINGING DREAMS INTO REALITY
Dispelling the notion that hackathons are just gimmicks is a pretty simple business: just look at what happens after the event. Teqplay is a good example.
Launched from winning the 2014 World Port Hackathon, it’s reaching a practical audience: Teqplay’s Nautical Efficiency Indicator ties together existing data sets from maritime, meteorological and logistics sources to furnish a group of port users with intuitive, real-time views of specific calls – with the option of scrolling back and even forward to planned events.
More, the company’s Riverguide app for inland skippers is designed to calculate how long a journey will take, using dynamic information on currents etc and giving the clearances and operating times of any locks and bridges along the route. It’s already in use at Rotterdam, and now a number of other ports such as Zeeland, Groningen, Amsterdam and Moerdijk (as well as regional and water authorities) are co-operating to broaden its application.
Would Teqplay have sprung into being anyway? Probably not, says Mr Gommans. In his view, “the magic of hackathons is that they bring the talent, the industry, and the problem into the same room”. Hackathons are one of the few places ideas can be pitted against solid experience, giving developers an idea of what will (and what won’t) work at inception.
It also shortcuts the perennial issue of trying to find a port interested enough to help tailor a product: sometimes this just means adding the necessary realism but it could also reveal potential collaborators. Certainly, teams formed at the event may go on to work successfully together, but even more fundamentally, it might show up people willing to get behind an idea: Mr Gommans himself crossed the desk after WPH14 to join Teqplay’s original team of two, helping the start-up to blossom into a company of ten.
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