4 Things I Learned at ExpeditionHack NYC

A few weeks ago I participated in the New York edition of ExpeditionHack, where teams mapped the future geography of conservation, restoration, and sustainability. Planet OS was a sponsor of the event and provided teams with free access to our Datahub API, allowing them to easily integrate Earth science data into their applications.

My role at the event was to assist teams using Planet OS in their applications, and I mostly spent my time responding to Slack messages, increasing API rate limits, producing sample python code, and providing dataset advice and technical support.

By 3:00 p.m. on Sunday sixteen teams submitted demos, which was quite impressive given that they officially had less than 16 hours to produce results (and were unable to stay overnight at the venue due to building restrictions).

As the weekend wound down, after consulting many of the teams and watching them evolve from their initial idea to final pitch, I had a few personal takeaways that I thought I’d share. Here they are, in no particular order.

1. BYOP: Bring your own problem(s).

Hackathons are intense, on-the-clock events that are all about execution. Do your ideation before the event and arrive with a few problems in mind. That way you’ll be prepared to quickly get working on a solution. This is especially relevant if the hackathon’s topics are outside your domain, even more so if you only have 16 hours to code.

A number of teams approached me during the event to ask about potential applications they could build, searching for a general problem. Other teams, those with a clear notion of what problems they wanted to tackle, asked specific questions about how Planet OS could be used to implement their solution. The latter group not only started building sooner, saving valuable time, but also outperformed teams without a clear vision in the final pitches.

You don’t necessarily need a solution, you can work with your team to sketch out the minimum viable product, but arriving with a clear problem statement ensures you’ll hit the ground running.

2. Presentation matters, so polish your pitch.

After a sleepless night frantically pounding at your keyboard, it’s easy to overlook the importance of your final product pitch. But ultimately all that work boils down to a brief presentation. This is your only opportunity to impress the judges, so make the most of it.

The grand prize winners submitted VIV, a data visualization tool which displays the changes in key variables that effect our climate. Not only was their application well designed, but their pitch was equally polished, both visually and in its delivery to the audience. This combination made a powerful impact on the judges and secured them the win.

Identify who on your team will be pitching your solution _before_ it’s time to pitch. Make sure this person reserves enough time to produce the required slides and rehearse the presentation. Even with the most kick-ass demo, a polished pitch will only strengthen your chances of success.

3. Earth science data can be confusing.

While the hackathon was focused on the future of our world’s environment, most of the participants had no experience working with Earth science data. This became clear as more and more teams approached me to discuss the environmental datasets available in our Datahub.

There was confusion about what a forecast model’s reference time represents; the difference between a climate model and an RCP scenario; the difference between a reanalysis product and observational data. Once teams really started to dig in and work, a small line of developers with data-related questions manifested in front of me. I worked with each team to clarify their needs, pointing them at the most appropriate datasets, and in some cases shared with them that the data they wanted simply didn’t exist.

Kudos to all the programmers who jumped in and started wrestling with the data, but I sensed a lot of confusion overall, and with limited time to produce, confusion can kill. Had a team with a strong Earth science background entered the hackathon, they clearly would have had a big advantage. Not only technically, but also strategically, since they would have likely also possessed a better understanding of relevant problems to solve.

As the winning team noted in their submission, one of the biggest challenges they ran into was “understanding how to deliver a product that is useful to a challenge of this type.” They weren’t alone.

4. These fields are ripe for feedback.

As a technology sponsor, hackathons provide a great opportunity to engage with developers and receive direct feedback on your offering. Because teams are working under a strict deadline, they need to be quick and efficient, and if your product is failing to meet their expectations they’ll be sure to let you know.*

I used a variety of tools to engage with teams during the hackathon. Planet OS uses Intercom within our Datahub web application, and a few teams used that interface to reach out for assistance. We also established a dedicated channel in our Planet OS Slack community, in addition to one set up by the organizers specifically for the event.

All of these digital communication methods worked well, especially when delivering a code snippet, clarifying a query parameter, or requesting a team’s API key to increase their rate limit. But nothing could replace being physically present at the event. The insights I gained from one-on-one conversations with participants actively using our API simply wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t there.

* They’ll also let you know when it’s meeting expectations, or even exceeding them :)

Congratulations not only to the award winners, but to every team that successfully submitted a demo. I was seriously impressed by how quickly you were able to produce working software. It’s taken me a few hours just to write this blog post!

Also big thanks to the everyone at Blue Compass and all the other ExpeditionHacks NYC sponsors. It was great meeting everyone and looking forward to seeing you again at a future hackathon!

If you’re interested in hacking together your own Earth science data application, check out the Planet OS Datahub.

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