Stanford University
Students watching presentation.

Participants in the Big Earth Water Hackathon focused on finding innovative solutions for global problems. (Photo credit: Jack Li, MS '20, CEE)

Big Earth Water Hackathon drives solutions, from hydropower to sanitation

The cross-campus Big Earth Hackathon initiative is sponsored by the Stanford School of Engineering, School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth), and Stanford ICME. In addition to university support, the Hackathon was made possible by generous support from industry sponsor Tencent and a gift from David Wallerstein, chief exploration officer at Tencent.

BY Danielle Torrent Tucker
ClockDecember 14, 2018

Some opportunities for Stanford students seem to capture the ethos of Silicon Valley: take a risk and solve a problem.

During autumn quarter, 110 students accepted that challenge in a big way as participants in the Big Earth Water Hackathon, the second in a series of Big Earth Hackathons focused on finding innovative solutions for global problems. The competition’s water theme encompassed issues that are key to our survival as a species.

Students hailed from four Stanford schools – Engineering, Humanities and Sciences, the Graduate School of Business, and Stanford Earth – and 25 percent of the participants were undergraduates. Seventeen faculty members and researchers helped manage pitches, mentor students and judge the projects.

The competition was held from Oct. 6 to Nov. 30, breaking the mold of a traditional hackathon, typically held during one or several days in a row. For the first time, students could also earn credit or My Cardinal Green points for participating in the hackathon. The longer time frame encouraged bigger and more grounded solutions, according to hackathon director Derek Fong, a senior research engineer in Civil and Environmental Engineering.

“The eight-week format allowed students to both think carefully about serious water problems and gave them enough time to come up with full-fledged solutions or prototype solutions," Fong said.

The format also attracted support from faculty, who were more willing to invest their time into research projects with longevity, he said. Dan Reicher, a lecturer and research fellow in Stanford’s Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance, pitched a Hackathon project idea to consider management of the 80,000 dams in the U.S. The research from the group that pursued this idea will form the basis of a course taught in the Law School winter quarter on exploring the balance of hydropower and environmental concerns for dam sites.

People have come up with preliminary solutions and don’t want to stop there.

The water theme encouraged a variety of project proposals, from policy and hardware to sustainability and disaster risk. Teams of up to four members generated ideas based on a series of talks during ‘water bootcamp’ and workshops during the Hackathon kickoff Oct. 6 or fashioned projects as continuations of previous projects. The Stanford Urban Risk Framework (SURF) team formed their project based on previous research. The hackathon supported their development of an open-source tool aimed at helping decision makers estimate the financial and infrastructure risks associated with natural hazards and sea-level rise.

"There’s no way SURF would have come this far if not for the Hackathon,” said team member Ian Avery Bick, MS CEE '18. “It was a great opportunity to build a team around a previously limited-scope project and get real experience with software development. Everyone brought something unique to the table.”

Arnav Mariwala presenting research.
Arnav Mariwala BS Physics '17 MS Geophysics '19, a member of the Stanford Urban Risk Framework team, presents his poster at the Nov. 30 Project Expo. (Photo credit: Jack Li, MS '20, CEE)

Hackathon winners

The SURF team earned the coveted AI for Earth Challenge prize sponsored by Microsoft, which includes $5000 of Azure cloud computing credits. The team is planning to use the computing credits to further develop their model and apply it to different hazard scenarios.

Eight additional prizes recognized contestants for the strength of their projects. They were awarded during the Project Expo on Nov. 30:

Grand prize: Stanford Urban Risk Framework

  • Ian Avery Bick MS CEE '18, Arnav Mariwala BS Physics '17 MS Geophysics '19, Alex Miltenberger PhD Geophysics '22, Adrian F. Santiago Tate MS CEE '20, PhD Geophysics '22

2nd Prize: Predicting Sanitary Sewer Overflows via Random Forests

  • Marlies Michielssen, BS Management Science & Engineering ‘21

3rd prize: BioImpact

  • Wenjia Cai, MS in CEE '20, Gaeun Kim, BS Physics '22, Justine Lee, MS in CEE '20;

Best Solo Project: Predicting Sanitary Sewer Overflows via Random Forests

Best Data Project: Predicting Sanitary Sewer Overflows via Random Forests

Best Software Project: CR2C Monitoring Dashboard

  • Jose Bolorinos, PhD in CEE ’20, Siyu Rong, MS in CEE ’19, Yu Zhu, MS in CEE’19

Best Policy Project: Hydropower: climate solution and conservation challenge

  • Justine Lee MS in CEE '20, Cecily Wang MS in CEE '19, Cayla Whiteside MS in CEE '19, Makena Wong MS in CEE '20

Best Hardware Project: BioImpact

 

The cross-campus Big Earth Hackathon initiative is sponsored by the Stanford School of Engineering, Stanford Earth, and Stanford ICME. In addition to university support, the Hackathon was made possible by generous support from industry sponsor Tencent and a gift from David Wallerstein, chief exploration officer at Tencent.

The projects were evaluated by a panel of judges including Stanford faculty and industry leaders. Judge Tony Stayner from Water.org noted the Hackathon offered “impressive solutions to a diversity of problems.” The organizers hope to continue Big Earth Hackathons into the foreseeable future, Fong said.

“The really exciting thing is that this is just the beginning – these projects have legs,” Fong said. “People have come up with preliminary solutions and don’t want to stop there.”

Students during poster session.

Students present their research during the Project Expo Nov. 30. (Photo credit: Elizabeth de Oliveira)

Media Contacts

Danielle T. Tucker

School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences

dttucker@stanford.edu, (650) 497-9541

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