Hackathon Wizards

On the weekend of December 4-6 2016, three Nordea CMIT employees, Kamran Manzoor, Sebastian Axelsen and myself, journeyed to Malmö...

On the weekend of December 4-6 2016, three Nordea CMIT employees, Kamran Manzoor, Sebastian Axelsen and myself, journeyed to Malmö to partake in the OpenHack: Coding For Humanity hackathon. As the title states,  the projects should in some way “Heal the world, make it a better place”, to quote Michael Jackson. For the unfamiliar, a hackathon is an event for programmers to “hack” together prototypes of applications, hardware, etc. over the course of a few days. Since programmers typically create stuff out of a few lines of text, I like to think that we are the wizards of real life.

While we didn’t manage to come up with a cure for cancer or solve the European migrant crisis over a weekend, we learned some interesting stuff,  met some fun people and most importantly had a lot of fun hacking away for a weekend.

We wanted to work with some new technologies for our project and since the hackathon was hosted in collaboration with IBM, we thought it would be a great idea to try out the Watson super-computer services. Basically, you have access to a lot of Watson functionality that was previously proprietary to IBM, such as image recognition, speech recognition and a lot of other artificial intelligence services.

Out of this, we came up with the idea of developing a mobile app to help blind people navigate when they are out shopping. We called the app “Alfred – EyeShopper”. Our aim was to use bluetooth beacons to assist blind people in navigating different areas of the shop or mall by placing the beacons strategically and using speech recognition for navigation. A sample use-case would go like this:

The user interacts with the app using his/her voice. For instance, the user queries Alfred by saying e.g. “I want to find bread”. The app then translates the query into keywords using Watson, scans for nearby beacons tagged with the keyword “bread”, and then dictates the directions like “The bread is 10 meters away”.

To implement this we required functionalities like speech-to-text, text-to-speech and semantic analysis, which were all available through Watson. For people participating in the internal CMIT hackathon looking for inspiration, you can have a look at the available services here https://console.ng.bluemix.net/catalog/ .

Like many other IT projects, we failed in some important points – we failed to limit the scope based on our available resources and we made a too optimistic plan. Deciding on manageable tasks when you only have 2 days to make a prototype is a tough call!

In reality, we were not far making an awesome prototype. We had some last minute issues with getting the result “direction” audio playing, and we did not have time to allow for voice recording. Also, our beacon didn’t arrive with the mail on time. All this meant that we had to mock a fair bit of the functionality, and with a rather simple UI we don’t think the audience were as impressed by our accomplishments as we were hoping.

Despite feeling a bit bummed about not completing the app (and ascending to true hackathon wizardry), we had a great weekend and it has increased our excitement about the CMIT hackathon. We are looking forward to bringing our experiences to the table and helping others become wizards of reality.

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