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Photo: UN Women/Amanda Vard

Columbia University – UNICC Thinkathon

Team Agritech wins with its ozone-based disinfection system to address Disaster Preparedness and advance human welfare

Columbia University School of Professional Studies (SPS) and UNICC have collaborated to bring students and alumni together to advance human welfare, accelerate the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and confront the great challenges of our time in the first-ever Columbia University SPS – UNICC Thinkathon. Teams proposed solutions to three social challenges:

  • Gender equality: Using data and technology to address violence against women during and beyond COVID-19
  • Cyber security: Understanding risks that arise from our reliance on the Internet, focusing on regulatory, policymaking and/or technological solutions in areas of Artificial Intelligence, personal data, automatic decision making and victims of data breaches
  • Disaster preparedness: Reporting on the manner in which COVID-19 has impacted vulnerable populations, to inform solutions and strategic planning to recover and reverse deterioration trends.

A summer-long Thinkathon to advance human welfare

Seven teams have been working all summer on real-world solutions with live data, mentored by subject matter area experts from Columbia, the private sector and UN Agencies.

In June, 17 teams of 3 to 5 people submitted their proposals with a statement of interest, with answers to one of the three challenge prompts and optional supporting documents. Among the initial participants there were 45 Columbia University students or alumni from five different schools, with 38 external students or professionals. Up to ten countries on four continents were represented.

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A review committee studied the submissions and selected seven final teams that moved forward to the Thinkathon competition. These teams have been working throughout July and August together with expert university, private sector and UN mentors to refine their proposals and final presentations.

Three of the teams selected the Gender Equality challenge, two teams worked on the topic of Disaster Preparedness and the last two teams chose the Cybersecurity challenge. Mentors who provided guidance and support included:

  • Edna Chun, Lecturer, Human Capital Management Department, Columbia University
  • Shouryadipta Sarkar, Information Management Senior Specialist, UNDP
  • Shahryar Shaghaghi, Chief Technology Officer, Quantum Xchange
  • Tima Soni, Chief, Cyber Security Section, UNICC
  • Lizzette Soria, Women’s Policy Expert, Safe Cities, UN
  • Jay Kesavan, Data Science Expert and Partner, Bowery Software.

Final presentation and winners

On 24 August 2021, finalist teams had the opportunity to present their ideas in front of a global audience and a panel of preeminent judges, in a live event that featured initial remarks by Columbia University SPS Senior Associate Dean of Student Affairs Zelon Crawford and presentations from UNICC’s Chief of Data and Analytics Anusha Dandapani and Data Scientist Dishti Gurnani.

Then each team had five minutes for their final pitch, after an introduction by their mentors. The judges had the opportunity to ask follow-up questions. After long deliberation, UNICC’s Chief of Data Analytics Anusha Dandapani announced the winners.

Team Agritech was the first-place winner, receiving a $3,000 cash prize, with its solution of a newly-developed, sustainable, proprietary ozone-based disinfection delivery system to tackle the disaster preparedness challenge. The system addresses the matter of food loss and food safety by dramatically minimising the effect of malicious pathogens on agricultural products across the entire supply chain, while at the same time considerably increasing shelf life of fresh fruits and vegetables as well as seafood, meats and edibles greens.

Our unique ozone delivery system is designed extensively to be applied in the form of dry or wet methods determined by sensitivity, delicateness, fertility of the treated products.

Agritech Team

Logista Emergency Response was the runner-up. Their solution addressed the Disaster Preparedness challenge with a rapidly deployable and scalable field-based logistics system that gives emergency responders accurate, data-driven insights in order to make the right choices when time and resources are in demand. The cash prize for the runner-up team was $2,000.

The audience-chosen team was The Bulb, which was awarded a $1,000 cash prize for their Gender Equality solution of virtual networking against violence. The team proposed a virtual networking solution to eliminate all forms of discrimination and violence against women. Their solution contains two major networking platforms, a group chat using a popular communications app and a blog site.

The teams were evaluated for their clarity and innovation, the social impact of their solutions, the capital requirements and financial forecast, the viability, both operational and technical, feasibility and sustainability of the solution, as well as the presentation delivery. The panel included the following judges:

  • Pavan Pidugu, Chief Technology Officer, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation
  • Rodrigo Hernan Prado Cordova, Co-Founder and Managing Partner of Primus AI, RPA
  • Reda Sadki, President, The Geneva Learning Foundation
  • Ursula Wynhoven, United Nations Representative, International Telecommunications Union
  • Friederike Schüür, Fellow, AI Ethics and Digital Governance, United Nations.

Solutions proposed by other teams were also great:

  • The SafeTeal team proposed an inter-sectional mobile app for gender-based violence prevention and response. The app is intended to engage across the educational space, advocacy circles and the healing space.
  • The Merakhi team also had a solution to the Gender Equality challenge, proposing a smart jewelry and education program.
  • The CV2 team proposed a global, encrypted communications platform to tackle one of the biggest challenges in the cyber security space, by collecting and dispersing information in a timely and secure manner
  • The World ID team proposed a distributed ledger Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) providing digital identity solutions designed to immutably protect sovereign, institutional, and citizen-level data and information, increasing scale and integrity in global information systems.

Thanks to this Thinkathon to advance human welfare, participants have been able to sharpen their critical thinking, problem-solving and communication skills. The challenges have heightened their awareness of global challenges, allowing them to build capacity and share knowledge, and work in collaboration with people with different perspectives.

Abraca-Data: A Team of Young Talent, Forged by Chance, Fortified by Data

Several days before the start of the UNICC Global Hackathon: Data for Good, five students from five different universities in India received an email from UNICC informing them they would be participating in the hackathon together as a team. Himanshu Bajpai, Birla Institute of Technology and Science in Pilani; Aanisha Bhattacharyya, Institute of Engineering and Management in Kolkata; Foridur Rahman, Savitribai Phule Pune University in Pune; Swaraj Priyadarshan Dash, Silicon Institute of Technology in Bhubaneswar all registered individually without knowing each other or what to expect. 

Our team consisted of students from India with an enthusiasm for data science… Our participation as a team was entirely a stroke of luck.

Himanshu Bajpai, Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani, India 

UNICC’s Global Hackathon: Data for Good launched on Tuesday, 16 February 2021 with an introduction from the organization’s executive leadership to a global audience of UNICC and other UN organizations’ staff members, university representatives and over 140 students. Following the introductory remarks from UNICC’s Director Sameer Chauhan and Chief of Digital Business Solutions Ninna Roco, Anusha Dandapani, Chief of Data Analytics, introduced the three challenges of the hackathon: COVID-19 Open Challenge, Refugee Crisis: Predict Forced Displacement, and the UN75 Visualization Challenge. 

Himanshu, Aanisha, Foridur and Swaraj registered under the name Team Abraca-Data and opted for the Covid-19 Open Challenge. The challenge called for measuring the socioeconomic impact of the pandemic, identifying key stakeholders in managing the outbreak and forecasting the impact of phased vaccination cycles.  

The team began by breaking apart the segments of the challenge and delegating the analytic workstreams to members of the team: Swaraj focused on government measures implemented in developing countries, Aanisha investigated the global vaccination drive, Foridur observed the socio-economic impact of Covid-19 and Himanshu found trends in overall transmission of the virus. All of the students brought their individual fortes in data analysis, statistics and interpretation to approach their respective areas of research.  

Despite their varying approaches, all students on the team collectively agreed upon one thing: to look for trends not already known. Instead, the students focused on finding new insights, particularly how the Covid-19 virus is transmitted among children, the resulting behavioral changes in societies and patterns in the vaccination drive with other key international factors. They looked into data sets from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, Johns Hopkins University, New York Times, The Covid Tracking Project, and UN data sets such as OCHA Coronavirus (Covid-19) Vaccinations, all of them open source. 

They found that the number of children testing positive was actually in regard to the number of cases identified as positive in Italy. The team presented that on average, 1/12 of all positive Covid-19 cases in Italy were children less than 15 years old, effectively marking a correlation between the number of cases among children and the general population that has the potential to guide future policy decisions in the pandemic. 

Credit: UNICC
Credit: UNICC

Additionally, the team presented a word cloud visualisation that was built from various data sets, including the ACAPS COVID-19 Government Measures Dataset which consists of related intel across sources from governments, media, the United Nations and other organisations. By building this visualisation, team members offered insight on shifts in public opinion through the observation of common verbiage, such as “Violence” and “Alcohol” pertaining to individual behavior and “Sanitation” and “Unemployment” related to government response. 

One thing that we were clear about though, was that we won’t try to find trends and patterns that we were already aware of. Instead, we’d try to discover new insights. 

Team Abraca-Data 

The final section of their presentation focused on the global vaccination drive, where they started by looking for correlations between countries that are leading the vaccination drive, such as Israel, Chile, United Kingdom and Serbia, and their ranking in GDP per capita. They also focused on other trends such as data concerning the overall rate of vaccination and the return rate for the second dose for Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines. 

The team’s meticulous research and valuable data insights won them first place in the UNICC Global Hackathon Challenge 1: Covid-19 Open Challenge, where they were competing against four other teams. Furthermore, their award-winning project allowed for the development of their data skills capabilities and provided data-driven insights, addressing two of UNICC’s data strategy goals in alignment with the UN Secretary-General Data Strategy

When recounting their Hackathon experience, Abraca-data members expressed an overwhelming appreciation and an enriching experience. They thanked their mentors, whose dedicated attention and helpful feedback “only motivated us to push harder.”  

Team members aim to continue their collaboration and build upon their research, such as incorporating more data on vaccinations, for future presentations and publication. 

This article is part of a series of stories from the first UNICC Global Hackathon: Data for Good that took place in February 2021. The hackathon drew registrations from a total of 140 students from 54 universities located in 13 countries around the globe, all of whom came together to tackle three major UN related challenges: Covid-19 Open Challenge, Refugee Crisis: Predict Forced Displacement, and the UN75 Visualization Challenge. To learn more about this successful event and its wonderful finalists, please refer to this article here.