Singapore-MIT Environmental Solutions Hackathon

Center for Environmental Sensing and Modeling, SMART, Singapore

From July 5th-7th, students from MIT and National University of Singapore (NUS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), and Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) converged on the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) for the Singapore Environmental Solutions Hackathon. The challenge put to the students was an ambitious one: generate and develop a proposal to address the unique environmental challenges confronting the island nation.

The participants rose to the challenge. From a plan to use the thousands of existing traffic cameras to detect unsafe levels of air pollution, to a scheme to use synthetic biology to control nutrient levels in Singapore’s water reservoirs, the six participating student teams came up with an array of unique and exciting proposals for the problems at hand.

“The motivation for this event was to give deep, creative thought to how the environmental challenges facing Singaporeans can be solved. We found that the students, working under the time pressure of a competitive hackathon and in multidisciplinary, multinational teams, could generate fresh and innovative ideas on how to mitigate these problems,” said Steven Barrett, Associate Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT and lead organizer of the Hackathon.

The three-day event began with technical lectures by SMART-affiliated researchers on environmental issues of particular importance for Singapore. Profs. Janelle Thompson and Les Norford briefed the students on urban heat island effect, air quality and water quality issues. “These environmental issues were selected as the focus of the Hackathon because of their importance in the Singaporean context,” said Barrett. “Poor air quality from industrial activity or forest fires can disrupt schools or businesses, and Singapore’s built-up landscape can lead to elevated temperatures in localized areas. Both degrade quality of life and negatively impact human health.”

15 undergraduate and graduate students from MIT, and 13 from the Singapore universities, participated in the Hackathon, and each team was made up of 4 or 5 students from both countries with backgrounds as diverse as computer science, economics and epidemiology. Following the technical lectures teams worked on developing their ideas, with guidance from experts on urban heat, air pollution and water quality from the SMART Center for Environmental Sensing and Modeling (CENSAM) to develop their ideas.

MIT and Singapore students worked in teams, advised by expert mentors from CENSAM.

Student participants commended the interaction with students from other disciplines and other schools. “Its not everyday that you get the opportunity to sit back and let your imagination go wild” said Shruti Srinivasan, a Ph.D. student from NUS. “It was a pleasure to meet my peers from other universities and to get to know the style and approach with which they tackle the different questions that we mulled over […]. Life as a grad student can often be a solitary exercise with problems and solutions of very defined parameters and the Hackathon was a welcome change for everyone seeking diversity in thought.”

At the end of day three, the teams presented their projects to each other, and to an expert judging panel. The solutions were judged on the basis of five key criteria: creativity, potential impact, rigor of analysis, clarity of communication, and the “wow” factor.

Team Singalert
First prize team Singalert, with SMART Director Daniel Hastings, the Cecil and Ida Green Education Professor of Engineering Systems and Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT.

First place went to team “Singalert” (Jia Lin Goh (NUS BS ‘18), Anvita Pandit (MIT, BS ’17), Omar Labban (MIT, SM ’16), Ivan Lee (SUTD, BS ’17), Joyce Zhang (MIT, BS ’16)), who proposed a haze early warning system for Singapore based on social media posts about fires and smoke plumes in neighboring countries combined with a meteorological model. Singalert would predict if and when a certain emission plume would reach Singapore, which would give Singaporeans the ability to adapt to an upcoming haze event – much as New Englanders prepare for a snow emergency.

The second-place team, “Breatheasy” (Shivangi Goel (MIT BS ‘17), Ranjitha Shivaram (MIT, SM ’16), Agrim Singh (SUTD, BS ’16), Shruti Srinivasan (NUS, PhD ’17), Tan Chun Yan (NUS, BS ’16)), proposed a mobile app that provides personalized information on air pollution impacts and proposes real-time travel itineraries to minimize exposure to air pollution in Singapore. As risk profiles differ across population groups, with elderly and ill people as well as pregnant women being more adversely affected by air pollution, tailored real-time pollution advice could lead to a significant improvement in health and quality of life for these groups, in particular.

The event was organized by MIT’s Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment and CENSAM, with support from the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative, and the Singapore Land Authority.

Students and organizers expressed strong interest in developing all six projects further, if as stand-alone endeavor, or as a research project under the Singapore-MIT Undergraduate Research Fellow (SMURF) program at SMART.

“As organizers, we are incredibly impressed with the outcomes of the hackathon,” said Barrett. “The students not only developed a wealth of potential solutions for some of the most pressing environmental concerns in Singapore, they also clearly laid out a path for actually deploying their solutions. We are currently exploring how SMART and MIT can help facilitate this.”