Embracing the creative spirit: How the Tampa Idea Hackathon helped me to think differently

May 7, 2020

Competitors shared some surprising solutions to transportation in Tampa over two days

By Frank Domingo

 

At a time when so many people are quarantined and practicing social distancing, it’s important to remember the value of community. The isolation that we feel now reminds us of the interconnectivity of our lives and the influence we have on each other. Communities are where we conduct business, educate our children, relax, and play. They are also the places where we connect to exchange ideas for improving life today and for future generations. 

Earlier this year, we partnered with the Tampa Bay Lightning to host our second Idea Hackathon where teams of bright minds gathered to develop and share plans to improve mobility for the City of Tampa, Florida. This is the challenge we gave them:

How do we leverage technology to define and design a new mobility future that ensures
Tampa is a livable, equitable, and resilient city?

Tampa is one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S., outpacing the national average. A fundamental part of my job as a transportation engineer involves designing ways to improve how people get around the city. Engaging with local residents is a crucial part of that process. To meet the demands that come with this rapid growth, we need to look to the community to inspire some of our best ideas, and events like the Idea Hackathon are vital. 

 

 

While transportation engineers may know about road design, traffic flow, and transit planning, the people who live and work in these communities know much more about day-to-day life in their city. Those insights play an important role in guiding smart mobility strategies, allowing engineers to make more informed recommendations to improve transportation. In fact, the two winning ideas from the Idea Hackathon focused on aggregating information from the community.

 

The diversity of ideas

During the event, I served as a mentor helping teams to flesh out their ideas and turn them into actionable solutions. The participants came from all backgrounds, ranging from veteran professionals to eager students. 

As a transportation engineer, my field of vision in my daily routine heavily focuses on technical issues. Volunteering as a mentor at the Idea Hackathon has made me reexamine the different elements of smart mobility and reevaluate what it means to provide a good mobility system that works for everyone. 

 

Frank Domingo’s (center) role as a mentor involved helping teams turn their ideas into actionable solutions.

 

For example, one of the Hackathon teams pitched an idea for a meditation product that uses soothing tones to improve the mindset of travelers using public transit. Simply put, the team wanted to help people feel better about using public transportation. Since mentoring the group and offering suggestions for mobility applications, I’ve started thinking about my own work and what my team can do to enhance travelers’ experiences. 

Engineers focus so heavily on the design of a transit system that we often don’t think enough about the state of mind for the actual user. I certainly hadn’t thought about it as much as I should. That’s changed quite a bit recently and my team and I are having more conversations around this issue with our clients. _q_tweetable: Volunteering as a mentor at the Idea Hackathon has made me reexamine the different elements of smart mobility and reevaluate what it means to provide a good mobility system that works for everyone._q_

 

Untapped potential

I believe that the most creative ideas come from parts of the community that haven’t been tapped into before. Events like the Idea Hackathon serve as a platform for creative minds to pose a solution to a community issue. We had 10 teams with participants from broad backgrounds that allowed us to capture a wide array of ideas about how to improve mobility. In fact, some of the most exciting ideas came from teams that didn’t have a background in engineering.

As the COVID-19 outbreak began to grow into a global pandemic, Team Zero came to the Idea Hackathon with an ambitious plan—keep people safe and healthy while gathering air-quality data. The team proposed a system of air purifiers that utilize UV light to decontaminate the air people breath and monitor the quality of the air it filters and upload the information to a cloud database. The creativity of their idea earned them first place!

 

The winning idea from Team Zero used UV light to purify air and a cloud-based system to gather data on air quality.  

 

While Team Zero focused on the passive collection of information, Team Tampa Bay Mobility went with a more direct approach to community engagement. The idea was simple—give Tampa residents a way to text their feedback on transit and mobility to a central hub. That hub would then connect to existing systems, link to forms, and enable transit agencies to conduct meaningful outreach. Mobility outreach often proves challenging and engagement can generate fragmented results. The Tampa Bay Mobility idea essentially bridges the divide between commuters, cyclists, pedestrians, transit agencies, and public works staff, allowing residents to influence the changes they want to see in their community. The idea used a relatively simple process and existing technology to fill a need every agency can identify with and got the team second place.

 

Learning outcomes

As we saw from our event, there is value in creative minds from all backgrounds participating in these events. Transportation solutions can benefit from input from all backgrounds, but these are some we saw on display in Tampa:

  1. Economics – Experience in data analytics and critical thinking have become highly sought-after skills in several industries, including mobility. Economists’ ability to understand data and think outside the box the makes them effective additions to any Hackathon team.
  2. Healthcare – Doctors and nurses impact our lives every day, especially now in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. Coronavirus will have a lasting effect on how we live and move throughout the world. Having a medical perspective helps to develop systems that are safer and healthier for the public.
  3. Finance – The critical thought that goes into cost/benefit analyses and life-cycle cost evaluations makes for a valuable addition to any Hackathon team.  Financially driven minds can help make an idea not only innovative, but fiscally possible.

For those considering participating in an Idea Hackathon, I have two pieces of advice:

  1. Don’t put limits on your idea – Even though our event focused on mobility, you don’t need to know how to design a road to make an impression.
  2. Don’t be intimidated, all ideas are welcome – Winning a hackathon is a rewarding experience, but it isn’t everything. These events provide great opportunities to get your ideas in front of the people who can help you see them through to fruition.  

Our world has been changing rapidly. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic we were on the cusp of a mobility revolution. Events like the Idea Hackathon are an important expression of our humanity – though we may experience trials and challenges as individuals and as a society, people will always come together to embrace the creative spirit, solve problems, and rise above. 

You can learn more about these and other Hackathon ideas by checking out the Tampa Hackathon Idea Book

 

About the Author
Frank brings 32 years of comprehensive infrastructure, transportation planning/traffic engineering (TP/TE), transit, community development, and public-private partnership expertise to each project. As the Innovative Mobility Solutions team lead for the firm, he’s facilitating a multimodal, multidisciplinary AV Shuttle Deployment team by connecting the passion and diverse technical know-how within Stantec with new resources in this growing field.

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