College of Engineering Student Wins Campus Statistics Canada Hackathon
It’s not often that you see students from graduate programs as diverse as Project Management, Information Systems, and Biotechnology collaborating on a project. But that’s exactly what happened recently at Northeastern University in Toronto when students from various programs competed in the campus’s first-ever hackathon. In addition to meeting peers from other programs, the hackathon — a collaboration with Statistics Canada — gave students the opportunity to use their knowledge and skills to address climate change.
“We are always looking to provide students with experiential opportunities that showcase their skills,” says Farzaneh Irani, Assistant Director of Multidisciplinary Graduate Engineer programs in the College of Engineering and the main organizer of the hackathon. “The campus leadership team really champions every initiative that benefits our students and this was no different. When we shared the registration form with students, 45 spots filled up in less than 24 hours and we had to cap registrations. That’s how much excitement there was.”
Stephanie Goetz is the Hackathon and Sprint Lead at Statistics Canada. She worked closely with the University to facilitate the event. Stephanie says that the students’ enthusiasm and the university’s eagerness to make the competition as valuable as possible for learners immediately stood out.
“If I get 20 registrations for our internal hackathons, that’s a good hackathon. So, when I opened the sign-up form a day after we released it, I couldn’t believe the amount of students who registered in 24 hours. This ended up being the largest hackathon I’ve facilitated. It was a great partnership from the start.”
The event centred around three questions. How might we use existing and open data to better illuminate climate change challenges? How might we integrate open data with StatsCan data to close climate change data gaps? How might we use existing and open data to inform new and current climate regulations?
“To come up with the hackathon topic, we polled our students and a large number mentioned climate change,” says Farzaneh. “Of course, it’s a topic of conversation in the media but it’s also top of mind for our students who want to make an impact.”
Participants were divided into six groups, each of which was responsible for developing a video showcasing their idea. The video proposals were judged by a panel consisting of a committee from Statistics Canada, Northeastern University Toronto’s Program Advisory Council members, and staff. Panel members also held bootcamp sessions to provide guidance and support to the teams.
The Winning Submission
Qi Ren is a College of Engineering, Master of Science in Information Systems student, and a member of the winning team. His team proposed a data visualization (heatmap) in a geographic information system software using Statistics Canada data such as gross domestic product (GDP) and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The visualization tool provides an overview of GHG emission in a geographical context, as well as relation with GDP, that will accelerate analysis and decision-making processes.
The panel found the tool easy to understand with the potential for quick, value-added results. One panelist noted that the tool could help officials and stakeholders focus on climate issues, identify priorities, and find solutions.
“For me, this was a valuable experience in many ways,” says Qi. “We got to address an important topic and meet people from the industry. But the most valuable part was turning an idea into a demo in just three days. To do this, we had to learn new tools quickly, communicate efficiently, and manage our time.”
As the hackathon’s winners, Qi and his team members will have the opportunity to meet with Statistics Canada’s leadership team. The networking will allow the students to showcase their idea and discuss climate change.
“We hope students walked away from the competition more confident in themselves and able to identify what they can bring to the table,” says Farzaneh. “When they look at finding a co-op, for example, they will be able to highlight that they were able to contribute a solution to an important topic in a short amount of time. That’s valuable.”
With the hackathon’s collaborative nature and fast-paced structure, Stephanie says she hopes students gained additional knowledge and practical skills during their experience that will assist them during their studies and in their careers.
“We are impressed by the hard work displayed during this hackathon,” says Stephanie. “We hope what students take away is seeing their own ability to work resiliently when areas of uncertainty come up. That’s a skill that can be applied in many ways.”
A Valuable Community Partnership
While Statistics Canada’s Innovation Secretariat facilitates an annual nation-wide data challenge, this was the first individual university hackathon the division has hosted. Stephanie says it presented a unique opportunity to meet talent that will soon enter Canada’s workforce.
“Statistics Canada has, over the last few years, been recognized as one of the top employers for young people,” she says. “It’s important for us to continue to bring in new talent and partnerships like this one are a great way to be introduced to students who will be launching their careers and also give students access to learn about the government.”
Farzaneh adds, “Statistics Canada was an incredible partner for us. They brought a wealth of information and are a Canadian employer that’s addressing prevalent issues, such as climate change, which is important to us as an institution. It was a great match.”
As Northeastern University Toronto continuously seeks ways to offer students unique experiential learning opportunities, Farzaneh and her team are already discussing the possibility of another hackathon.