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Why hackathons are an effective tool to create valuable applications by using EO data

The first Copernicus open data hackathon is taking place in Austria on the 4th and 5th November 2016 with 7500€ in prizes. We asked the organizers to tell us more about the Copernicus uptake situation in Austria and hackathons.

The Austrian Research Promotion Agency (FFG) is the national funding agency for industrial research and development in Austria. Additionally, FFG fulfills all the tasks of a national space agency. Working for FFG since almost 10 years, Thomas GEIST is in charge of Satellite Earth Observation and in particular of Copernicus. He will be part of the Jury during the Hackathon.

INITS is the biggest high-tech university business incubator in Austria. Eva AHR works with high-tech startups and projects at INITS and is organising the hackathon.

What are in your opinion the main challenges faced by Copernicus uptake in Europe?

Thomas Geist:
Copernicus is now up and running with four Sentinel satellites in place (and more to come in the next years) and operational services offering information products on a regular basis. Copernicus offers data and information under a free and open data policy and the programme is promising a continuity of services over a long time. These are fundamental elements for a sustainable use of Copernicus. However, there are still manifold challenges for a successful user uptake.

First of all, a prerequisite for the uptake is the safeguarding of access to Copernicus data and products in an easy and reliable manner. Secondly, the buildup of expertise among the multifaceted and partly fragmented (potential) stakeholder and user communities in public and private sector is of high importance. This is partly connected with access to suitable financing and funding mechanisms, but also to tailor-made training opportunities. Finally, a big challenge is still the lack of awareness that Copernicus exists and what can be done with the data, information and tools already available.

You see, there is a huge potential in terms of supporting Copernicus uptake. Therefore, the deployment of an effective user engagement strategy must have a high priority. The European Commission is starting to tackle this with the launch of a variety of initiatives, such as the set-up of a Copernicus support office, the Copernicus relays, the Copernicus academy network and the provision of information and training material.

Is there an „Austrian approach“ for User Uptake in Copernicus?

Thomas Geist:
Austria has to face the same challenges of raising awareness of Copernicus and stimulating user uptake as other countries. Therefore, a structured exchange of best practices between states and regions could help much and should be strengthened.

There are several elements of an „Austrian approach“. As a more top-down approach addressing the public sector on national and regional level, the Federal Ministry for Transport, Innovation and Technology (bmvit), which has the political responsibility for Copernicus in Austria, has set up an inter-ministerial group for Copernicus. This body is involving all entities relevant for the use of Copernicus on national level, such as the Federal Environmental Agency or the Ministry of Interior Affairs.

For a couple of years, as a more bottom-up approach, FFG has tried to prepare the Austrian industry (mostly SMEs) and science community for Copernicus via the funding of collaborative R&D projects through the Austrian Space Applications Programme (ASAP). With the compulsory and active involvement of user groups in these collaborations a certain level of awareness could be accomplished among selected communities. As a next step the real uptake of Copernicus into business processes must be tackled, beyond showing the pure technical feasibility. Other elements to mention are for instance the establishment of a national access to Sentinel data, operated by ZAMG (= Austrian meteorological service) and the foundation of the Earth Observation Data Center (EODC) providing collaborative IT infrastructure for archiving, processing, and distributing EO data.

Next to the well-known instruments for promoting research, development and innovation, we think that a couple of unorthodox formats might help to unlock new user groups. One idea was the implementation of a Copernicus hackathon, and here with INiTS we have found the perfect partner.

Can you briefly describe the background of the initiative?

Eva Arh:
As the Copernicus data is made available in an open and free way, Ministry for Transport, Innovation and Technology and Austrian Research Promotion Agency saw a great chance to raise the awareness about the Copernicus open data by organizing a hackathon. The aim of the hackathon is to generate exciting ideas how Copernicus data can be used in valuable applications as well as promote the project as such. In order to create meaningful ideas and implement data into applications, we will have mixed teams that consist of developers, data scientists, geographers, physicists, entrepreneurs etc. If in other hackathons it is enough to have developers on board, we also need experts in the Earth observation to shed a light what these data mean. We at INITS, the biggest and most experienced high-tech incubator in Austria, have organized hackathons before and we know that such an event is very efficient way to educate attendees about the topic and simply generate a lot exciting use cases. Some of the ideas could turn into companies that we can support after the hackathon. Earth Observation Data Center is enabling the hackathon technically – they are already working with Copernicus data and have prepared them to an extent that attendees can create applications within 2 days.

Why is a hackathon the best tool to reach your aims?

Eva Arh:
Hackathon is an efficient way to generate different ideas and solutions within a very limited time frame. By gathering people with various skills and guiding them through the idea generation process, we make sure that we have teams where members complement each other in order to achieve something within 2 days. The diversity and friendly atmosphere also should contribute to the creativity. Exciting prizes are also crucial to generate interested. We will award the winning team with 1500 € as well some teams will get a chance to present developed solutions at future events or on related websites which serves as a great reference. Furthermore, our partner EODC will provide access for the winning team to supercomputers and complete datasets so that the team can continue to work on the idea.

How would you describe a hackathon to a five year old?

Eva Arh:
What is a hackathon? Building something together with others in a short time. Imagine that you and your friends compete about having the biggest castle out of Lego. You have 2 days to build it. You have 4 other friends working on your castle and the other 5 kids are working on their own castle. Your big brother will help you in case you need some support.

What do you expect?

Eva Arh:
We expect motivated attendees that are ready to explore the data and work hard to have something that can be demonstrated and shows the potential of this open data. We know that this is challenging but therefore we will have good food and mentors that can support the teams. We also hope to attract people that have not been involved in the topic until now so that we grow the community of people and companies that deal with the Copernicus data. To summarize, we expect lots of fun, hard work and exciting use cases of the Copernicus data!