Hacking into Experiential Learning: Smart Data Hack

Smart Data Hack

When we started the Smart Data Hack in 2013, the premise was simple: take a bunch of tech-savvy students, challenge their imaginations and coding abilities with problems and data from ‘the real world’, then sit back and see what happens over the five days of Innovative Learning Week.

The results were mind-expanding, for the students, for the sponsors, and for us, the organisers.

In our first year, we had over 70 students stay for the whole week, and feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

One participant said:

“This week was easily the most useful and fun week I’ve had since I started uni. This is what normal uni time should be like, learning new practical skills and putting them to good use to create something awesome.”

One key to success was inviting a number of outside bodies to contribute data and challenges. Over the years, the Smart Data Hack has been supported by a variety of organisations: commercial (Dixons Carphone, Amey, Aquila Insight, Skyscanner, Bloomberg, Thomson-Reuters, Swirrl, Tesco Bank), public sector (City of Edinburgh Council, Scottish Government Analytic Services, Scottish Parliament) and voluntary sector (Médicins sans Frontières/Missing Maps, Practical Action, ALISS, Project Ginsberg, Greener Leith, Friends of the Earth Scotland).

Kim Taylor, a BSc (Cognitive Science) student who participated said:

“By the end of the week our team had a prototype of an Android app that made use of data provided by the Edinburgh Council. Since then we’ve been fortunate enough to gain the support to continue developing the app. Learning by ‘doing’ helps us to see for ourselves how our skills can be put to use in real-life applications. Getting to choose what we work on not only makes us more motivated to learn, but also gives us experience relevant to our own interests. For example, I chose an AI project that tied in well with my knowledge of linguistics and other cognitive science topics.”

In the last couple of years, the Information Services Learning, Teaching and Web department has supported students in creating projects that use the University’s own services and data (such as MyEd and room bookings). Sponsors don’t always (or even, often) get a team to respond directly to their challenge. However, they do get an opportunity to see novel, out-of-the-box approaches and an opportunity to spot potential interns and recruits.

One student remarked:

“Smart Data Hack gave me a chance to learn many new skills and practical technologies that simply don’t get covered in class. It also led to an internship with IS, the perfect introduction to working in the real world.”

Ben Jeffrey, a participant in Year 1, said:

“The real value of the Smart Data Hackathon was putting us in touch with more experienced mentors, and giving us the time, resources and freedom to build some amazing applications and to really push us out of our comfort zones. Many of the projects are still continuing, and are now working with the corporate sponsors, so these events can certainly help fill out our CVs.”

The Smart Data Hack has evolved gradually over the four years, but throughout that time, the event has been co-produced with students and supported by CompSoc, the Informatics student computing society.

Giving students a chance to work in teams on innovative solutions is extremely rewarding.

Erin Nolan, a BSc (Engineering) student remarked:

“Although the computer scientists are enthusiastic to get others to learn, they’ll generally explain a concept or piece of jargon by using lots of other jargon or concepts, and won’t be aware that the other person doesn’t already know this. This can be overwhelming for complete beginners, and often they feel pressured into not admitting lack of understanding because it appears that everyone else already knows it – although that actually often isn’t the case. SDH is an opportunity to bridge this gap because the variety of students and disciplines involved.”

Nevertheless, one area where the Smart Data Hack has been less successful than I’ve wanted is in encouraging and supporting multi-disciplinary teams. One of the factors that impedes students from different schools working together is the lack of a shared language (as pointed out by Erin), but the Smart Data Hack barely lasts long enough to start bridging the cultural barriers.

In response to this challenge, and in collaboration with colleagues from Edinburgh Living Lab, I’ve launched a new SCQF level 8 course, Data, Design and Society. Although we are only just past week 5 at the time of writing, the more leisurely framework of a 20 credit course is proving much more conducive to student teams developing the degree of trust and understanding required for working effectively across disciplines.

Read more about the Smart Data Hack

Launch.ed workshops, one-to-ones, and mentoring for students with entrepreneurial or business ideas.

Ewan Klein

Ewan Klein is Professor of Language Technology in the University of Edinburgh’s School of Informatics, and has 30 years’ experience of research in natural language processing. He is currently serving as Ambassador for Open Knowledge Scotland, and is also a co-founder of Prewired and of Edinburgh Living Lab. He has organised the Smart Data Hack since 2013.

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