Students hack for the planet

6 November 2020
Hackathon inspires smart solutions to real environmental problems
Multidisciplinary teams of students and researchers have pitched winning solutions to environmental problems faced by the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA).

Students and researchers from across the University worked together to solve environmental problems facing NSW.

Four teams of students and researchers took part in a hackathon event, developing solutions to selected environmental problems facing NSW EPA in the areas of native forestry and air pollution, which can harm the health of the NSW public.

The 20 participants were placed into teams to virtually collaborate on improving current regulatory enforcement in two areas for the chance to win a share of $21,000.

Over 48 hours they developed ideas that tackled the pressing environmental issues and presented their solutions to a panel of NSW EPA judges which included Samantha Gray, Director Regulatory Practice, Michael Hood, Director, Environmental Solutions and Heath Thatcher, Senior Technical Advisor (Air) Health Thatcher.

A winning solution to track emissions breaches

The EPA presented two problems for teams to choose from: a solution to improve monitoring and enforcement of forestry requirements for logging activities or a solution to help improve real-time notification of pollutant emissions breaches.

Taking out the competition was a mobile application and dashboard to improve the process of reporting and monitoring emissions breaches.

“Our team pitched a two-part ecosystem that includes a user-generated mobile application and a backend dashboard,” said Master of Design student Adrian Wong.

The winning team designed a dashboard that provides real-time emissions pollution notifications.

“It provides a platform for users to report their problems, and then uses that data to generate accurate and timely notifications and meaningful information on pollutant emissions through machine learning. The information is pushed to the backend dashboard for NSW EPA to react in real time.”

Students benefit from multi-disciplinary collaboration

Led by Associate Professor Maryanne Large from the Faculty of Science in collaboration with Incubate, the hackathon gave students first-hand experience in working with people from a broad range of disciplines including science, engineering, design and arts.

Teams also had access to mentors and subject matter experts from the EPA and the University of Sydney to support them through the process. 

“I worked with people from a science and business background. They focused more on feasibility, viability and how the product can fit into an existing business model – this will encourage me think differently when I approach solutions in the future,” said Adrian.

Students valued the experience of collaborating with others outside of their discipline.

Doctor of Philosophy (Science) student Shurui Miao said that his degree emphasises fundamental research and that he took part in the hackathon to see how his skills could be applied to a real-life problem.

“The hackathon gave me the opportunity to work collaboratively with other students from various disciplines. It has helped me appreciate the complexity of approaching problems, as well as how important it is to tackle them with multiple perspectives.”

It has helped me appreciate the complexity of approaching problems, as well as how important it is to tackle them with multiple perspectives.
Shurui Miao, Doctor of Philosophy (Science)

The NSW EPA is planning to incorporate some of these ideas in their technology roadmap to improve regulatory operational processes and assess the ideas further for operational feasibility.

“The concepts presented will inform the NSW EPA regulatory strategy going forward, the type of technology investment they are going to make. These are very significant contributions to the environmental protection of our country,” Samantha Gray, Director of Regulatory Practice, EPA.

These are very significant contributions to the environmental protection of our country.
Samantha Gray, Director Regulatory Practice, NSW EPA