Hacking research translation: EU looks to hackathons to extract value from its datasets

30 Mar 2023 | News

In an attempt to get more value out of the basic research it funds, the EU is organising hackathons to transform the raw data generated into products and services

The European Big Data Hackathon, organised by EuroStat, took place in March 2023. Photo: EU-BD-Hackathon / Twitter

Taking a leaf out of the corporate playbook, the EU is turning to hackathons as a way of opening up data generated in the research that it funds to fresh eyes and multi-discipline expertise, in a bid to spark innovation.

The aim is to overcome the long-running ‘European paradox’ that Europe is a science superpower in terms of what comes out of its laboratories, but fails to extract full value of this knowledge because it lags in translation and commercialisation.

The focus on translation is evident in the greater emphasis in Horizon Europe - compared to the forerunning Horizon 2020 - on supporting innovation, and forming and growing companies, including making equity investments through the European Innovation Council (EIC).

Hackathons are another route to generating products and services, as the European Commission discovered during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the EIC organised the EUvsVirus hackathon.

That generated 117 potential products and services including a patient monitoring system that minimised the need for physical contact between nurses and patients, a remote queuing app to ensure social distancing in shops, and a sewer surveillance platform for detecting the virus in wastewater, to help decision makers direct resources where they were most needed. People in 141 countries participated in the event.

Building on this experience, three EU-led hackathons took place this month: the European Big Data Hackathon, organised by EuroStat; the EMODnet Open Sea Lab hackathon, organised by European Marine Observation and Data Network (EMODnet) and the Cassini hackathon, organised by the EU Agency for the Space Programme.

Each had a similar goal of encouraging participants to delve into huge EU-funded datasets to address societal and environmental challenges.

While the Cassini and Big Data hackathons were in-person events held in various member states, the European Marine Observation and Data Network (EMODnet) Open Sea Lab hackathon, which encourages small teams to tackle five categories of societal and environmental problems facing the world’s oceans using the EMODnet database, was online.

EMODnet’s hackathon leveraged a wide range of ocean-related data, while the Cassini hackathon involves analysing images captured by the EU’s Copernicus satellites, and the Big Data hackathon interrogated Eurostat statistical data on Europe and the EU population.

Investors in early stage companies are supportive. “Some of the biggest and most innovative companies use hackathons to encourage creativity and empower employees and users, so why wouldn’t public institutions do the same?” said Luigi Amati, co-founder and board member of META Group which finances and advises start-ups, who is also president of Business Angels Europe.

Deep dive into marine data

The EMODnet database is extensive, with a central platform connecting seven different categories of data, including underwater depth values, biodiversity data and seawater chemistry.

“EMODnet consists of a large network of more than 120 organisations that work together to unlock marine data,” says Jan-Bart Calewaert, head of the secretariat of EMODnet. “There are many different data types covering different disciplines and themes, from chemical and physical data to human activities, and data are available in many forms.”

EMODnet’s database allows marine researchers to make comparisons between their own data and those of others, and also enables studies to have a broader scope than would otherwise be possible, expanding on the knowledge generated.

“Collecting data is expensive, therefore it is important to allow this information to be used and re-used multiple times,” says Maria Eugenia Molina Jack, a marine scientist at the Istituto Nazionale di Oceanographia e di Geofisica Sperimentale in Italy. She uses EMODnet’s services regularly for her work, recently using the database to conduct research on problems with reporting on monitoring of contaminants in the Adriatic and Ionian Sea, and to carry out a study on marine litter.

It’s the first time that EMODnet has staged an online hackathon, but it found the response very positive, according to Angelika Karampourouni, communications and partnerships officer at EMODnet.

“We have submissions from 82 countries, with 500 individual participants,” she says. “The average age [of participant] is 25. I’m a fan of diverse ages in hackathons. The more age diversity you have, the more interesting the ideas are.”

In terms of background, many participants were marine science graduates, but the event also attracted data scientists, which is important because a technical background is needed to interrogate EMODnet’s databases.

A core part of the hackathon is matching individual participants with teams. Anyone can take part and you don’t need to have a team to start off with – you can log in to the platform and then find people who want to tackle the same challenge that you do.

One example of this, Karampouroni says, is a Dutch fisherman who is eager to collect data and wants to work with scientists to use it for the public good.

“He has no official training, but he understands the connection between data collection and the need to have more vessels participate in it. He has applied sensors that he created himself on his own vessel. This is someone who’s looking for scientific support,” she says. 

The three winning teams will travel with EMODnet to the European Maritime Day in Brest, France. There, they will be introduced to organisations, companies and people working in the marine sector who might help the team to make their solution a reality. 

Angel investors like Amati are eager to see EU institutions continue to support these competitions.

“A group involving marine biologists, data scientists, software developers, and anthropologists, for example, may have a very different view on the problem and potential solution than a team of just researchers or policy officers,” Amati said.

“However, a pre-condition for such a practice to be successful is checking the box when it comes to key elements such as good organisation, great animators, diverse teams, realistic timelines and a problem-driven approach.”

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up