The challenge, hosted at Boston University, was to develop a new app, IoT solution or device in under 24 hours across three vertical categories.
A “Smart City” program focused on making cities safer and more resilient, a theme that emerged from Boston’s record-breaking 100-inch snowfall and responses to the 2013 bombing near the Boston Marathon finish line.
An “Accessibility” challenge was presented by Perkins School for the Blind, of Watertown, MA, with the goal of developing technology that changes how a vision-impaired person experiences the world.
The “Smart Agriculture” category explored IoT solutions for food security, impact of climate change, food demand, water shortage, and population growth.
Judges chose three top finishers from among nine teams:
FARMR is a smartphone app that uses sensors to track plant data such as moisture and growth. This ‘Smart Ag” entry will encourage smartphone-toting millennials to get the most out of backyard plantings or community farms. In a game-like format, users report on crops from seed to harvest. Results could be shared via the app and so could weather warnings or pest and fertilizer advice for nearby users.
SafeSign is a sensor-enabled upgrade for signposts, could include data to serve a range of applications. Available parking spaces could be displayed for motorists, warnings about passing traffic for pedestrians and cyclists. Posts might also gather data on weather, air quality or count passing cars, bikes and walkers. It won the “Accessibility” program for serving vision-impaired residents, and other users.
Sanctuary won the “Smart City” category, with an IoT software resource that serves both neighbors and first responders who need to help residents in a time of crisis. The locations of critical needs such as food, heat, electric or water are mapped using data sensors and SMS. Then location-aware maps show where resources are available and handle requests from those in need.
“These were actionable, relevant hacks on things that matter,” said Chris Rezendes, one of the six judges who evaluated the presentations. And it’s about both creating new data as well as scavenging for fresh uses of existing, historical data sets.”
Rezendes has a company, INEX Advisors, that consults on IoT and works with government agencies on emergency response and community engagement. He said the pressure of a hackathon can address a specific need – like the app that one team devised for wirelessly monitoring the weight of snow on a roof to avoid damage.
Or the challenge can identify a new audience: Another team envisioned sharing traffic pattern data from existing apps and GPS devices, aggregating the data to better control traffic signals to optimize driving routes in cases of extreme congestion.
Each team chose from an array of sensors, toolkits and ThingWorx software. Sensors could be used to monitor everything from heat to movement, moisture levels to noise. Most teams used multiple technologies—Bluetooth, WiFi, data exchange and existing public data sets—to power their creations.
For the three partners who developed SafeSign, it wasn’t easy getting from idea to a working prototype of an IoT-connected street sign. Presenter David Wang said he was running on only about 90 minutes of sleep but had support from friends George Sun, a nanotechnology doctoral student at MIT and Justin Ho, who works in software.
“I’m a big fan of learning new things at these events,” Wang said. “My specialty is data analysis but usually I work with text.”
All three finalists will do a brief video presentation about their solutions. Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak will select a top choice to receive a $10,000 first prize. The second-place team will receive $5,000 for second place and $2,500 for third. Winners will be announced Tuesday May 5 at the Hynes Convention Center, with an estimated audience of about 2,000 people.
Going from concept to prototype so quickly is difficult, said Chris Rill, another judge, who won a hackathon two years ago that launched Canary, a home monitoring system that uses wireless technology. Unlike other home security systems, the device is portable and always “learning” with signals from the user’s smartphone.
“Winning gives you credibility and a quick prototype,” Rill said. “Now, there are more plug-and-play projects and with ThingWorx you don’t need to be a programmer. You can build more quickly on existing platforms or APIs.”
New York-based Canary sells both device and services, he said, and both were sharpened in the trial-by-fire that is a hackathon, where teams get a fresh perspective from users, potential partners, investors and experts.
Some ideas that emerged in the LiveWorx hackathon were strong enough to support real-life applications for sponsors including Perkins School and FreightFarms, said event host Kevin Holbrook, who has a day job as senior director of partner technology strategy at ThingWorx, when he isn’t making sure the WiFi worked and energy drinks were restocked.
Photos by Matt Butler