Hackathons are more than just a way for coders, programmers, designers, and engineers to showcase their tech skills over a 24- or 48-hour period—they can also help city planners and local Business Improvement Districts, or BIDs, solve some of their thorniest problems.
Case in point: DUMBO—short for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass—BID recently partnered with New York University Tandon School of Engineering and ASME to host a 24-hour hackathon
to see what ideas or concepts engineering students could come up with in order to help one of the city’s most iconic neighborhoods deal with an upcoming five-year construction project.
As the creative brief for the EFx hackathon made clear, DUMBO is facing a very real problem that could severely impact local businesses over the next half-decade—omnipresent scaffolding, combined with loud construction noises and obstructed walkways, might turn away tourists and keep locals from visiting their favorite restaurants, shops, and businesses. Was there some way that a little technological magic might make those problems disappear into the New York air?
The event organizers were particularly looking for solutions that were SMART (self-monitoring, analysis and reporting technology), green, and easy to implement within a relatively short period of time.
In order to let the hackathon magic happen, the nearly 100 participants were given carte blanche overnight access to one of the city’s best maker labs, complete with laser cutters and 3D printers, as well as support from NYU students-members of the local ASME chapter, and mentoring advice by event organizers.
In 24 hours or less, teams of 3–4 people were expected to come up with not just a vision or concept—as might be the case with a typical corporate brainstorming session—but a working prototype of their idea
. Members of the DUMBO BID wanted to be able to pick up, touch, look, watch, and see ideas come to life right in front of them.
For most people in the corporate world, this might be a six-week project, complete with rough drafts, plenty of procrastination, and requests for greater budget. For the eager ASME student members taking part in the project, though, this was just going to be your typical all-nighter.
As students broke into teams and scattered into strategy sessions or took another run-through of the various tech tools available to them at the NYU MakerSpace, you could hear different ideas beginning to take shape.
Some teams were coming up with their own version of the High Line or in other cases, it would be a temporary structure that could be folded up, packed, and shipped much like a piece of flat-pack furniture.
Other teams were coming up with digital solutions, such as messaging services or delivery services combined with a virtual shopping component. Another team was going to work building a mobile kiosk concept that could also serve as a delivery point for food delivered from local restaurants and cafes.
While the various teams took different approaches to solving the problem, all of them shared one thing in common—a focus on using technology to solve business goals, rather than just technology for the sake of technology.
After an all-night session that had many participants in the NYU MakerSpace for hours at a time, followed up by a nearly two-hour judging session, it was time to see what the winning teams came up with.
Announcing the list of winners, the event organizers made clear that the best solutions would be at the intersection of technology and business
, with a genuine understanding of how New York City really works. A team of five judges used four different categories to come up with the final winners.
First Place: “DUMBO Powered By You”
In a project that was inspired by the New York Festival of Light that first took place in DUMBO, this team of students came up with the idea of user-powered piezoelectric light displays, in which mechanical pressure from increased foot traffic into the neighborhood would be used to power different light and art displays around DUMBO.
In addition, there would be a graffiti-like “scratch wall,” in which participants would be able to see their own messages and inscriptions lit up in bright lights on the sides of unsightly scaffolding. In many ways, this concept delivered exactly what the organizers were looking for—a way to generate positive buzz about the neighborhood as it underwent extensive renovation, a creative way to attract tourists, and a simple, ingenious way to direct foot traffic in the neighborhood using light columns.
Second Place: “Twitter Plant and Augmented Reality”
Part art project, part technological installation, “Twitter Plant and Augmented Reality” had a variety of creative additions that attracted the attention of the judges—including AR messages displayed on the sides of buildings and a life-size game of “musical chairs” powered by technology.
It also included a plant art installation with its own Twitter account. “Please water me” might be one tweet the plant would send out, in order to attract concerned followers from all over the city to stop by and water it, sort of like a high-tech Tamagotchi toy for all New Yorkers.
Third Place: “DUMBO Text Alert”
Members of Team 14 built a working, scalable text messaging system that would make it possible for local businesses and organizations to keep up with current changes taking place within DUMBO, as well as for local residents to get messages informing them when certain streets were being worked on, or when certain services would not be available. If you were judging the competition, you might have received messages from the team, as a valid proof-of-concept that this system could be deployed tomorrow.
And, of course, there were many creative ideas that did not win cash prizes that were still worthy of recognition. Throughout the EFx MakerHack, one team continually revised, updated, and tweaked its mobile kiosk concept, which involved a midnight run to the local Home Depot for wood. And another team built a concept that featured a high-tech walkway.
The managing director for EFx at ASME, Anand Sethupathy, noted that this NYU EFx MakerHack was the first of its kind in the United States, but that many similar events have already been hosted by ASME in India. The plan now, Sethupathy said, is for another EFx event
to take place at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, and then for these events to be rolled out to other cities in the Northeast, and eventually, across the country. Any urban metropolis or university town with a critical mass of students and technological resources can pull off one of these events.
There is now a new reason for metropolitan regions to become tech hubs, create new makerspaces and attract new startup companies—it gives them the ability and resources to solve just about any urban planning problem by tapping into the young, creative, millennial tech leaders of tomorrow.
Dominic Basulto is a business and technology writer based in New York, NY.
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