Let’s get one thing out of the way – “hacking” has multiple meanings, and hackathons are not about attacking computer security systems, turning light bulbs into cyberweapons, or starting World War 3.
NB: This is a viewpoint by Mark Lenahan, co-founder of CJ Ignition and an independent consultant.
The relevant meaning of hack, in the context of hackathon, and as used by developers – is to code rapidly and build a rough but working demo. To use it in a sentence: “it works, but it’s a bit of a hack”.
Hackathons have become a popular way to generate and prototype new ideas, for participants to learn about new industries and technologies, and for API providers and sponsors (usually established companies) to get developer feedback.
Personally, I think hackathons are an excellent way to attract talent to our industry. We have a lot of interesting challenges and complexity, a deep well of data, and a planet full of of inspiring destinations and experiences. Hackathons are one way to showcase travel to technology graduates and developers in other verticals.
I was delighted to participate as a mentor and juror in the IATA NDC Hackathon in Dublin this May. This was the 4th #NDCHack so far, and further events are planned later this year in Silicon Valley (Linkedin Sunnyvale HQ, 25th to 27th of August) and Paris (Ecole Polytechnique, Saclay, 20th to 22nd of October) to showcase NDC and other travel APIs to a wider audience of developers and technology graduates.
We gave every team a score (out of 10) for each of the following six criteria:
- Use of NDC standard
- Challenge solved
- Business potential
- User experience
As a juror, I think having a numeric scoring system helped enormously.
(DISCLOSURE: I was not paid or provided expenses for attending this event or writing this report, however, I did eat the food, drink the coffee, and meet a lot of interesting people.)
The APIs available
API stands for “application programme interface”, but for non-technical people it helps to think of them as the way one computer system talks to another. Sometimes that other system is in a different company. Without APIs from the participating suppliers there would be no hackathon – the APIs provide all of the data, products and services (like flight, car, hotel) that the hackathon participants use to build their prototypes.
The NDC APIs provided at this event included Sun Express, Iberia and JetBlue, as well as two dummy carriers in the in the IATA NDC sandboxes (powered by JR Technologies).
The teams were required to use at least one airline NDC API and one partner API.
Partner APIs provided included:
- AppInTheAir (traveller profile)
- Flightstats (flight schedules, status alerts, and historical performance, weather, trips)
- IBM (Watson API and Bluemix platform)
- Indigo.GT (transfers and ground transport)
- LinkedIn (signin, share, profile)
- Links Rez (hotel, golf and ground transport based on OpenTravel standards)
- Routehappy (flight scores and amenities, air ancillaries)
- SITA (airport data, baggage, airport beacons, boarding pass, flight information, airport wait times and weather),
- Skycanner (hotels and car hire search)
- South Pole Group (CO2 cost and purchasable offsets)
The Dublin NDC Hackathon was essentially two separate contests – corporate and individual. The corporate challenge applied to teams who came from established companies. The individual contest was designed for early stage startups and participants who signed up on their own and formed teams during the event. Probably reflecting the fact that the corporate teams came entirely from within the travel industry, the top four scoring teams were all corporate entries. Unfortunately, there was only one corporation prize!
Team IBS (IBS Software), won the corporate prize with their “PhoTra” concept – picture-based travel search.
PhoTra allows the user to select an online picture, and with one click be presented with priced flight, hotel and car rental offers based on the user’s location, the location where the picture was taken and some assumptions on travel dates.
Team IBS had to get many individual pieces working together to pull this off including, extracting geolocation data from an image, determining city and airport locations (using SITA API), use of Sun Express NDC API for flights, CO2 cost from South Pole, and Skyscanner for hotel and car rental quotes.
For a more detailed look at PhoTra, click here for a post on the IBS blog)
Go.together (Skyscanner) presented an demo of collaborative booking, addressing the case of friends in multiple cities converging on a single destination. The bookings were only completed when all friends agreed on the price and travel dates. They used Iberia for flights and Skyscanner for hotels, and were (I think) the only team to do a demo that included booking creation.
TimeFlyz, the in-house IATA team, were not allowed to win any prizes, but worked purely for the glory. Their core concept was to work out whether you would arrive in the airport with too much time or too little time, and then make contextual offers on that basis. e.g. lounge access if you have too much time, fast track if you have too little. They used IATA NDC sandboxes for flights, and airport and ground transport services from SITA and Indigo GT.
Eventia (Datalex) had the idea that people attending different events will also have different propensities for travel products. For example, someone attending a Rihanna concert may have very different hotel and ground transport preferences than someone going to Andrea Bocelli or Iron Maiden. Their demo allowed you to search and select an event and then suggested flights, ground transport and hotel, using JetBlue, SITA, Indigo GT and Skyscanner.
Virtual Team Manager (ISO Gruppe) presented a travel booking conversation using Amazon Alexa. The conversation included Alexa asking questions like “Are you currently in Madrid”, and responding to prompts such as “that might be too late”, before suggesting a flight itinerary with full price details. Their suggested use case is corporate bookings which would comply with built-in travel policy rules.
Flexible Flyer (SITA) demonstrated an interesting take on flight ticket pricing. Passengers could search for and select one or more itineraries (from Iberia) and then indicate a price they would be willing to pay. Subsequently the system would either monitor the latest prices (Hopper style) or provide the list directly to airline revenue management to accept or reject bids closer to the flight date.
TravelTron won the Business Challenge, and also the Developer prize, for a total jackpot of $7000 including access to an incubation phase. This was a one man effort from Evol Mark Johnson.
His idea was that anyone visiting an event page (such as a conference or trade show) with one click could get flight and hotel offers. Evol implemented a browser plugin to do this, and used IATA (NDC sandbox) and Skyscanner (hotel search).
Evol travelled from Detroit for the event, hoping to try something new and get some insight into the future of selling flight tickets. He has been less than one year in the travel industry, and is currently working at a flight ticket consolidator.
TOP – Travel Open Partnership – won the Leisure challenge by demonstrating how to embed contextual offers (such as images) in confirmation emails and other customer communications where the offer is generated not when the emails are sent, but rather when they are opened. Examples shown included JetBlue’s Even More Speed (shown with a countdown timer), latest weather forecast for day of arrival, and a hotel offer via Skycanner.
The team consisted of Silviu Preoteasa and Max Thiel (who have worked together in non-profit EntAnon) and Piush Vaish, who joined the team during the event.
The Colour Blinders won the first of two “Ready To Take Off” prizes (including incubation phase access). They demonstrated a mechanism to share a prior trip (from AppInTheAir’s traveller profile) and allow friends to make a similar booking (same flight numbers, different dates).
The business concept is to reward airline passengers with frequent flyer miles for referring other customers, when those new customers make a booking. The team consisted of Matthijs van der Veer, Magno Mathias and Maurício Reis.
Full Circle won the other Ready To Take Off prize by demonstrating ways to maximise your time in the airport. The prototype used Flightstats, Iberia, Google and Facebook, to estimate how much time you will spend in the airport and then send you chat messages with personalised offers on how best to spend that time, e.g. lounge access, digital movie downloads, etc.
The team consisted of Christian Facey, Adrian Rus, Colm Dougan and Zhechen Wei, who met at the event.
Fluerair – The core concept from this six person team was to show you destinations you have visited (based on your social media activity), allow you to rate them (at city level) and then suggest trips (priced and available) to new destinations you are likely to enjoy. They used Iberia for flights and Skyscanner for hotels.
AiTraveller – Anderson Carvalho’s entry attempted to provide an AI smart assistant for call centre agents (airline or travel agency) using natural language to determine the travel intent and then build quotes. If there was one developer, other than Evol, that stood out for all of the jurors it was Anderson. In addition to his own entry, tried to help out two additional teams, Finex and VisitorFlix (below).
Finex – Fitri Kenny’s idea was for the business traveler and the travel manager to collaborate on the search and book process, allowing the traveller to book within budget. Anderson helped Fitri get a small demo together, but the problem is probably too big to attempt in a single weekend.
VisitorFlix – Martin O’Regan’s idea was to enrich NDC search results with destination video content, that an airline or OTA could embed at various points in the booking flow. Anderson helped Martin get to the point of embedding video streaming URLs in NDC responses.
Based on my experience of this and other hackathons, albeit as a juror or mentor and not a developer, I have some suggestions for those thinking of attending a Hackathon.
1. Show don’t tell
- One critical lesson for people presenting in a hackathon is show, don’t tell. Too many pitches were based on the business potential of the idea and a long description of the problem, and ran out of time to complete a demo. A hackathon is not a shark tank or a dragon’s den. People can sometimes take the “tell a story” advice too literally, but the point of narrative is to provide structure to your demo, not to replace your demo.
2. Simple is better
- Simple but working is much better than complex and incomplete. This point was made at the start by a prior winner and repeated often during the event. As an example of a simple yet compelling idea, the winner of the Leisure challenge (TOP) was not a major technological achievement, but it worked, was a real demo, used the NDC and partner APIs and was put very clearly in the context of travel. Most of those who failed to demo a working product, failed because they made the scope too big.
3. Focus on what you are trying to prove
- What you need to prove in a hackathon is that you have delivered what you have described. For example, if your core concept (the pitch) is that there’s a difference between two scenarios or two customers then you need to show both in rapid succession (or side by side) and demonstrate that difference. Multi-scenario, multi-step or multi-role use cases are very high risk because they are very hard to pull off on stage within the time constraints. You need to finish coding earlier than the other teams and spend more time on demo scripting and practice.
4. Talk to the mentors
- There are so many diverging career paths in travel that I have never met anyone I couldn’t learn something from. Whether you have been in the industry two months or 20 years, you have seen something I haven’t, and (I hope) vice versa. Try to talk to every mentor at least once, explain the problem you are solving and why, and listen to the feedback. Likewise, if you are a mentor or even just an observer at this kind of event, please don’t wait for teams to come to you, go to every table, introduce yourself, ask what the team is working on. In this event we had 14 pitches but no bad ideas, and I put this down to interaction over the three days of the event with the jury members, various API support people, IATA staff and industry mentors like Aurélie Krau.
5. Be more than an idea wearing a suit
- Showing up to a hackathon as an entrepreneur, business or marketing person, and pitching an idea hoping to attract developers, is very tough. Developers don’t dislike business people but they want to join a team of other developers and have a better chance at sharing a prize. They want to avoid being the only developer on a team. As business people, we must think about what else we can add to this type of event to make it better. For example, recruit some developers beforehand, or find a way to help other teams. It is much easier to attract additional developers with “please join our team”, than with “I love my idea and I want you to work on it for free”. In hackathons, and in the tech industry generally, developers are the precious resource – not ideas.
6. Bring business cards
- If we want hackathons to attract people to our industry we must be willing to make connections and follow up, connect on LinkedIn and continue the conversations we start over the course of the hackathon.
If you were at the event please get in touch, or say hello in the comments below and share your own experience.
NB: This is a viewpoint by Mark Lenahan, co-founder of CJ Ignition and an independent consultant.
NB2: Dublin image via BigStock.