I was recently asked to be on the jury for the Asia-Pacific track of the 2023 SAS Hackathon. As many of my colleagues have said before, judging the hackathon is a great experience.
We were exposed to lots of innovative ideas about how to apply AI and analytics to a wide variety of social and business topics. It may be trite to say it, but I learned as much as many participants. Here are my top five takeaways from the experience.
1. An event like this really can make a difference to the world
One notable aspect of the hackathon was the sheer importance of the questions and topics selected by the teams. Interestingly, other judges elsewhere made the same observation, so this was not just an Asia-Pacific phenomenon. I think it is fair to say that all of the topics chosen were high on the global agenda in terms of criticality, impact and global focus. The issues ranged from the environment through food supply to healthcare and protecting at-risk communities. The solutions may only touch on a small aspect of each of these topics—but in a small way, they are really trying to make a difference, which is very encouraging.
2. The winning project for Asia-Pacific has the potential to affect millions of people
I say ‘in a small way’—but some of the projects can potentially affect the lives of thousands if not millions of people. The winning project for Asia-Pacific, Jakarta Water Resource Analytics (JaWaRA), was a real-life project about managing flood risk in Jakarta. The idea was to use IoT technology to build a central and integrated flood control system based on real-time data analysis. I genuinely believe that a successful flood management system could make a huge difference to the well-being of the city’s population.
3. A hackathon can be a way to test an idea that may be the start of something much bigger
Every idea has to start somewhere and be tested on the way. Another solution that really appealed to me was delivered by NBOA. The team focused on using AI to control the food production chain from land cultivation to harvest. They aimed to use a combination of location data and data analysis tools for this, coupled with a graphical display of land moisture and yield. They suggested that this could enable farmers to optimise the productivity of plantations. This may be a small thing at the moment. However, as the global population grows, we will inevitably come under even more pressure to supply food for everyone sustainably. Solutions like this could be the future.
4. Hackathons can be a great way to showcase the potential for service provision
Sometimes a project may look too specific but turn out to be very powerful. For me, the project by team ZEAL showed the potential of AI to help the government to provide a very granular service to citizens. ZEAL focused on analysing the economy of Japan before and after the pandemic and making projections for the future. The big lesson for me was that judicious use of advanced analytics could enable governments to better protect small businesses from the impact of economic challenges and even unforeseen events like the pandemic. This is a very powerful message that governments need to consider.
5. Wider (and better) use of analytics is going to be powered by easy-interface tools like SAS® Viya®
One common theme emerging from all the teams was the enabling power of SAS® Viya®. We kept hearing that it allowed them to focus on business problems rather than worrying about the technical issues associated with dealing with data and building technical assets. We know that data science skills—the software development skills needed to develop, manage, run and deploy models—are in short supply. It is, therefore, essential to have tools that enable business users to do their own analysis. I am not the only hackathon judge to notice the critical role played by Viya, either. I believe this is one of the true measures of a powerful AI platform: how much time and bandwidth help users focus on the things that matter rather than the technicalities.