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Students tackle challenges at Big Earth Hackathon

Armed with big data, analytical tools, mentors from industry and Stanford Earth, plus plenty of caffeine, students raced to create solutions to environmental challenges in 31 hours.


Huge data sets from satellite images, the latest analytical tools, societal and resource challenges, more than 100 Stanford students, and plenty of caffeine: These were the key ingredients in the first Stanford Big Earth Hackathon, which took place over 31 hours during the weekend of April 14. 

As a kickoff for Earth Week 2018, the Big Earth Hackathon aimed to raise awareness of critical issues and encourage students to find innovative solutions together. Students from undergraduate and graduate programs at four Stanford schools, including Engineering, Humanities and Sciences, Medicine, and Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, joined the challenge. 

“This was not the typical hackathon of writing apps aimed as the next startup idea or prototyping hardware for the next KickStarter campaign,” said Hackathon Director Derek Fong, a senior research engineer in Civil and Environmental Engineering. “Instead, our event brought together students from the entire Stanford community interested in understanding our planet and finding solutions to problems facing it.” The focus on Earth science and sustainability attracted groups such as Students for a Sustainable Stanford, whose members helped promote the event and volunteered over the weekend.  

The hackathon began with an address by David Wallerstein, Chief Exploration Officer for internet company Tencent. Wallerstein, a sponsor of the hackathon and an enthusiastic member of the organizing committee, challenged students to find ways to measure the health of the planet using satellite data sets and analytic tools.

Following the keynote, mentors from Stanford Earth geophysicist Biondo Biondi’s seismic vibrations group and the companies Planet, Satellogic, and Mapbox held workshops around potential hackathon projects. They offered guidance on how to use available tools and data. From there, the students set out to identify and solve a relevant problem. They worked in diverse, often interdisciplinary teams and were free to formulate their own problem statements. 

Standout projects

After an all-nighter and morning wrap-up, a project expo revealed awards for several projects. The grand prize went to Chris LeBoa, a junior in Human Biology, and Mike Burnett, a senior in Earth Systems, for a project entitled, “Environmental Impacts of the Rohingya Refugee Crisis.”  Using big data derived from satellite images, they showed effects on deforestation and water quality from more than 600,000 refugees migrating into Bangladesh. LeBoa and Burnett plan to continue developing the project with the goal of creating a model for assessing refugee camps around the world and helping decision makers understand implications in areas ranging from elephant migrations to human health. 

Big Earth Hackathon team
Second prize went to a team of four students who had never entered a hackathon before. Their team, called “Win by a Landslide,” was comprised of Geophysics graduate students Yixiao Sheng and Songze Li, who is also affiliated with the Institute for Computational and Mathematical Engineering (ICME), Geological Sciences graduate student Lijing Wang, and Earth Systems Science graduate student Tianmei Wang. The group analyzed data from satellites and government sources to create what they called a “susceptibility prediction map” for landslides triggered by earthquakes or heavy rainfall, with the idea that it could help infrastructure planners identify vulnerable areas. In the future, the team members hope to use neural network techniques to develop an early warning system for government risk management.

Third prize went to the project, “Building Damage Assessment Using Satellite Imagery,” led by a team of graduate students, Noah Athens (Geological Sciences), Amir Delgoshaie (Energy Resources Engineering), and Thomas Hossler (Geological Sciences).  Their project assessed building damage after natural or man-made disasters using satellite imagery. 

Other nods went to Physics student Laura Domine, for Best Solo Performance, and a four-person team of three medical students and a physics graduate student, who won recognition for Best Integration of Multiple Data Sets.

Next up: Hacking water problems

The April hackathon is meant to be just the first of many Big Earth Hackathons, courses and workshops focused on using big data to understand Earth’s processes and challenges, said Energy Resources Engineering professor Margot Gerritsen. “We are excited about plans to hold the second Big Earth Hackathon this autumn focused on the theme of water challenges,” said Gerritsen, who is also Senior Associate Dean of the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences and cofounder of the Big Earth Hackathons.  “It will be open to hardware, software and analytical solutions, and we expect even more interdisciplinary teams of students to participate.” There will also be follow up events from this hackathon, which will all be posted on the new website: BigEarthHacks. If you’re interested in getting involved, you can contact the team here.

The Big Earth Hackathon is a cross-campus initiative sponsored by Stanford School of Engineering, School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences, and ICME. In addition to university support, Tencent was an industry sponsor. Planet Labs, MapBox, Satellogic, MathWorks, AWS, Microsoft, NVIDIA, NASA and Justforall provided tools, prizes, food, and other support for the two-day event.

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Barbara Buell


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