Sara Boutall

 

Heroes of Covid-19

Students, Changemakers and the Rise of Czech Creative Solutions during the Pandemic and the First Online University Hackathon in the Czech Republic

Sara Boutall

This segment of our series on Covid-19 heroes will be dedicated to students and changemakers to all those who view the crisis as an opportunity and offer their capacities, expertise and energy to ensure that the Czech Republic deals with the pandemic efficiently.

The Czech lands have a long history when it comes to innovation. To name a few: the sugar cube, contact lenses, the lightning rod or the propeller, even polarography or the famous “Remoska” (a mini electric oven popular especially in Great Britain) are all Czech inventions. In recent years, there have been many attempts and even government initiatives to boost the Czech innovation again. However, as experience shows, the bottom up approach and grassroots activities are the ones that bear real fruit in the long term.

Many students have become engaged in a variety of activities during the pandemic. Medical students have been working and supporting nurses and medical doctors in hospitals or at the Covid-19 testing centers, students studying chemistry kept distilling disinfectants and students from pedagogy faculties helped in kindergartens.

The Czech Technical University team has already made the headlines with its own invention and production of the lung ventilator Corovent which was funded by money donated by public. In the beginning of May Corovent won the second prize in the EU vs. Virus Hackathon “Health and Life”, organized by the European Innovation Council.

The Technical University of Liberec, specializing in fibers, has not only expanded its research in the nanofabrics area, but it also has developed the so-called melt-blown technology to produce special filter layers for face masks, which is cheaper and easier than the nanotechnology from the point of mass production.

Students of economics from the University of South Bohemia in České Budějovice have, amongst many activities, founded a counselling center that advises individual entrepreneurs and small and medium enterprises and organizes webinars with experts.

To continue on the positive note of applied creativity, the Czech Technical University, together with prg.ai, CEE Hacks and UNICO.AI decided to organize the first on-line student hackathon during the first weekend in May. When I was approached by David Pešek, one of the organizers, on behalf of the Czech Technical University, with the request to spend a weekend mentoring an on-line hackathon, I said yes. Like many of the other counsellors, I did not know what to expect but mentoring is simply my passion. Little did I know that my upcoming Labor Day long weekend could be characterized by a headline: Are you tired of zoom meetings during your working days? Hop on and spend a weekend on Slack to get some energy!

More than 160 people joined the event from literally all over the world, from countries such as South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Finland, Russia, Czech and Slovakia. About 60 mentors, experienced professionals, offered help and guidance. The energy, spirit, and the legacy of the first virtual on-line university hackathon left a long-lasting impression almost on everyone who participated. After two months of functioning on Zoom, I never would have imagined how much can be achieved by communicating on Slack in parallel threads, combined with group calls and mobile phone messaging.

Thumbs up to all the organizers for the thorough preparation of the event. The coordinating team of a dozen individuals was outstanding, in particular, the originator of the idea Ondřej Brém, co-managing the event from Finland; Tomáš Studeník, a famous innovator, hacker and organizer of both hackathons and Fuck Up nights; Pavel Kordík, Alča, Eliška Novotná, Jiří “zub” and David Pešek on behalf of Czech Technical University; Lenka Kučerová with Julie Kovaříková from prg.ai; Vojtěch Kadlec from UNICO.AI and Sara Boutall from Startup Disrupt.

Five distinct challenges were announced for teams to work on: The city serving people, Education for the future, Future and stability of companies, Artificial Intelligence and the data potential and Smart Healthcare. Each of these areas was coordinated by an expert. Both public and private companies had representatives on the ground or on calls the entire weekend to make sure that solutions would be then put into practice and any viable ideas would have proper follow up.

The city of Prague, Technology Agency, Chamber of the Commerce of Prague 1 were just a few participants from the public sphere. AstraZeneca, Uniqway or ICT joined as partners from the private sector.

The kick-off took place on Labor Day. We started working at 10:00 a.m. first announcing the challenges, followed up by an excellent presentation by Tomáš Studeník on ideation, creativity and hacking tips. Team formations continued and by Friday night the teams started to announce the topic they would work on. Mentors had a checkin call to find out how their teams were doing and were encouraged to look out for teams or to start working on their own challenge. While students and mentors were working, I just crashed in bed. The Slack communication continued beeping all night long.

On Saturday morning, Anton Titov gave a presentation on prototyping. Saturday afternoon was dedicated to testing the solutions offered. Teams were encouraged to look for real users and to get feedback. I facilitated a call between a team working on eHealth with my mum, a medical doctor. It was interesting to facilitate a true “inter-generation dialogue” and great to see the students communicating with the potential end user, with light years different ICT skills and expectations than the millennial generation. In the evening, Nathan Gold, a US based sales pitcher and TED Speakers coach, offered a presentation on how to prepare for high stakes virtual presentations. A 10:00 p.m coordinating call for mentors served as a check that teams were progressing towards a prototype that they would be ready to present by the next day. Sunday seemed to just fly by as the teams were to submit their video pitch presentation by 6 p.m. Monday was a busy day for the evaluators. On Monday evening, the winning teams from each category were expected to deliver a final “pitch” to all participants on live stream. Which solutions made it to the final? What can be accomplished over a weekend? Let me share my three favorite projects.

The overall winner was the project Createachers (Tvůrčitelé). This web platform is for teachers who desire to approach education differently. Until now, a lot of effort has been dedicated to learning materials and worksheets but the personality of a teacher has been overlooked. Through the platform, teachers can share best practices, tools, ideas and experiences. Teachers can become influencers. The fact that education was the category chosen by most teams says a lot about the potential of the Czech educational system with regards to technological advances.

GreenPlace by GreenTeam is an app that allows the public to take an active part in supervising the condition of greenery, particularly trees. The user can take a picture of a tree, which is then sent to a database and AI analyzes the condition of the tree. If the tree is in poor condition, the authorities are notified.

Potrebujulekare.cz (Ineedadoctor.cz) was the solution that won the smart healthcare category. Patients, doctors, and pharmaceutical companies will benefit from this product that will provide a list of specialized doctors offering free capacity, after the practitioners will open their offices.

The winning teams received cash awards, Uniqway rides and vouchers for law consultations. However, I believe that the main motive for the first Czech university online hackathon was the desire to bring about change in Czech society. The good news is that most partners were interested in continuing to work with the teams on their proposed solutions.

For me, the hackathon was a great experience. Next time, I hope more students from humanities and economics will join, as the best teams are the most diverse ones. It was very comforting to see how many mentors offered their help for free. I also believe that over the weekend all the students experienced what would normally take several months in an accelerated program. For the Czech universities, I suggest that this experience should be an integral part of the curriculum.

All people I met thanks to the on-line hackathon were amazing. In fact, as most mentors agreed, we learned a lot ourselves. If one person stood out from the crowd with regards to their energy, enthusiasm, support, and ideas, it was Sara Boutall. I am pleased to introduce her to the Czech and Slovak Leaders Magazine readers. I am sure you will hear a lot about this young woman, whose motto is “Turning Czech Republic into a dynamic, innovative, AI superhub”. Sara is a co-founder of Innovation Disrupt Startup and responsible for Communication at prg.ai. She is an Oxford University alumna, holding a BA in Archeology and Anthropology and a MSc. in Cognitive Evolutionary Anthropology.

Sara Boutall

Sara, what was your overall experience with the first online hackathon?

My experience was overwhelmingly positive. I’m someone who works well in bursts of energy and creativity, so the hackathon format is ideal for me. I was blown away by the collegiality, friendliness, and passion despite no in-person contact, and I am in awe of the ideas that came out of this. Frankly, I can’t wait to do another one (after I’ve recovered slightly…)

How do you perceive the outcomes?

Hackathons rarely produce end-end solutions. Given that this was online as well, it was more of “an ideathon” rather than us expecting working outcomes out of this. However, the ideas were truly excellent, and I’m glad follow-ups are being made with certain projects as it will enable them to head towards the completion and scale they deserve.

Having this experience, have you changed your mind about the efficiency of on-line events?

I’ve always been a huge proponent of working from home and doing things online. Frankly, I was a bit scared of an event of this size and complexity running fully online, but I was blown away by how well it worked and how smoothly it ran. There was definitely a slight issue with commitment and ‘going all the way’ in the case of some participants (i.e., you’re not in a physical space together and it’s psychologically easier to give up on a project sometimes), but this is something that can be worked on by setting of expectations and clear rules. The online format isn’t a fatal hindrance in this respect.

What are the next steps?

We’ve carefully evaluated all the valuable feedback, followed up with winning and interesting projects to help them to the next stage, and might or might not be planning another one…stay tuned!

What positive impact with regards to the pandemic do you see in the Czech Republic?

Czech people are incredibly resourceful and love to ‘tinker’ with technology. There’s also a profound sense of community and grassroots movement building as well as self-reliance and adaptability. The population has coped with the pandemic extremely well and the adoption of new technologies has been overwhelming and hugely encouraging. I’m personally really optimistic about the agile and effective changes this wave of solidarity and digitalization can bring and how it will help the Czech economic resuscitation.

I also asked Valery Senichev, who was a mentor and evaluator of the Future of Education Section, to share his experience. Valery is a psychologist and a career consultant with a focus on future skills and the future of jobs. He is co-founder & partner of Jobs 2030, a consultancy company focused on getting people and companies ready for the changes of work which come hand in hand with new technologies, and a cofounder of Educamp.cz platform focused on training and consultancy.

Why did you join the hackathon?

A lot of people that I know were among mentors, so it was a nice opportunity to e-meet during the COVID-19. Moreover, I see education as a key factor of the future success of people and society, unfortunately education has been underestimated for a long time.

It was my first experience of being a mentor at a student hackathon.

During the 3 days of Hackathon I realized how good this idea is to bring both young and experienced career professionals together and to give them three days to solve some key challenges. I see huge impact of such projects, because they bring together motivated people with a need to help practically.

During many sessions, I witnessed both good ideas and bad ideas, but that is a natural process of brainstorming and prototyping the solutions.

Most mentors agreed that this was also unique experience for them. What were your main take-aways?

Innovation can be an “almost ready” and clear product or service with a high probability to be sold or capitalized in the market. At the same time, an innovation can be an idea or a project, that needs more time and input. Projects such as Createachers (Tvůrčitelé) has a great potential after three days of boosting, a great “shape”, but it can ́t be sold as the “almost ready” product.

Innovations are a process of creating something in business, culture, education and other areas, that either didn ́t exist before or improving something already existing. I am grateful to help great young talents to work on their innovations.

The Czech Republic has a history of being innovative with one of the first definitions of innovation coming from Josef Alois Schumpeter, a Czech born Austrian Minister of Finance who became a famous economist and a lecturer at Harvard University.

By Linda Štucbartová