Hack it, crack it: Vietnamese youth climb the hackathon bandwagon

By Hanh Pham   July 22, 2020 | 10:57 pm PT
Hackathons have progressed from a playground for tech students to an incubator of global solutions and Vietnamese students are getting into the act.

It’s almost midnight on a Saturday, and in the last 28 hours he has had just four hours of sleep, but sleep’s the last thing on his mind.

Nguyen Cao Duy, with teammates Vi Thanh Dat and Nguyen Trung Hieu in attendance, has his eyes glued firmly to three computer screens.

The trio are sitting in a 40-square-meter makeshift lab on the campus of the Hanoi University of Science and Technology.

Their workstation is cluttered with desktop computers, laptops, electronic cables and multiple socket outlets; and littered with half-eaten snacks, empty bottles of energy drinks and remnants of iced coffee.

They are among 20 groups of young software developers, data engineers and marketers competing around the clock at the first-ever collegiate hackathon organized on the university campus.

Hackathon, as the name suggests, combines hacking, referring to the act of finding creative solutions and marathon, symbolizing a long race requiring a lot of concentration and effort.

The participants at the weekend hackathon are expected to work under pressure, applying Industry 4.0 technologies including Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, Natural Language Processing and Augmented Reality to software products, mobile apps and websites to come up with solutions for real world problems in education, healthcare, agriculture, traffic and other categories.

Duy, a 22-year-old computer engineering major at the Hanoi University of Science and Technology, pulls his hair back into a messy bun, scrolls through hundreds of lines of numbers and letters.

"Under time pressure and short of money, instead of a wireless and waterproof integrated circuit, we’ve had no choice but to use a cheaper one from the Stone Age," the senior undergrad said with a shrug of his shoulders. His team is having trouble making different components integrate properly into one system.

Coding in process at a hackathon held by the School of Information and Communication Technology (SoITC) under the Hanoi University of Science and Technology, June 26-28, 2020. Photo by SoITC.

Coding in process at a hackathon held by the School of Information and Communication Technology (SoITC) under the Hanoi University of Science and Technology, June 26-28, 2020. Photo by SoITC.

Associate Professor Ta Hai Tung, dean of the School of Information and Communication Technology, one of 16 schools under the Hanoi University of Science and Technology, said: "Our ultimate goal is not only to help students grow in their fields of study but also to create more opportunities for them to thrive as future global engineers and citizens."

What students learn in class doesn’t always prepare them for jobs after graduation, he added.

Duy, Dat and Hieu have been friends since they toiled tirelessly in prep classes full of gifted high-school students for an annual national competition in computer science.

They have decided to build a mobile app that can monitor water quality in urban areas. The smartphone app will help users detect concentrations of heavy metals in groundwater. High amounts of metals can cause several health problems. The app will apply Artificial Intelligence to interpret data for researchers, scientists and professionals in water management.

"It can help water suppliers plan ahead when it comes to replacing corroded pipes and alleviating water quality-related health problems," said Du, giving an example of the app’s practical nature.

Duy and friends are among about 100 students invited to the country’s leading research university for a hackathon wherein they can try to invent hacks that might become the next big solution to global challenges like climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic.

‘Endless list of ideas’

At this young age, Duy and his teammates are hack veterans. They have been to quite a few corporate-backed hackathons in which selected participants are invited to create novel solutions for specific business problems.

"At first, we just signed up to learn the trade but then we just got hooked," he said. "We have developed a mindset to identify problems and think of solutions. Now, as soon as we sit down together, we can come up with an endless list of ideas. That’s what hackathons teach you."

Their current idea emanated from the water pollution crisis which affected about 18 percent of Hanoi’s households last year, when authorities warned residents not to use the water for drinking or cooking.

The team recalled their friends "having a depressing experience, having to clean themselves at work and bring their dirty laundry to the office." The young programmers feel people should have been told of the risks sooner. It was only a week after residents first detected an unpleasant odor in their tap water that Hanoi officials issued their warning. If there had been a mobile phone app capable of collecting data in real time across devices, city residents would have received a heads-up about unusual changes in their tap water well in advance.

"When you get pushed into a corner under pressure, with technical proficiency and strong determination, you will find creative solutions to real-life problems," said Dean Tung.

It’s caught on

Students work on multiple screens at the hackathon held by the School of Information and Communication Technology (SoITC) under the Hanoi University of Science and Technology, June 26-28, 2020. Photo by SoITC.

Students work on multiple screens at the hackathon held by the School of Information and Communication Technology (SoITC) under the Hanoi University of Science and Technology, June 26-28, 2020. Photo by SoITC.

Hackathons have grown in popularity, size, and frequency over the last couple of decades. The first-organized hacking contest took place in Calgary, west Canada, "where 10 developers came together to avoid legal problems caused due to export regulations of cryptographic software from the U.S."

According to hackathon.com, there were nearly 3,500 hackathons held worldwide in 2016. Then came a whopping 63 percent increase in their number in 2016-2018 to nearly 5,700. The U.S. topped the list with about 1,500 hackathons. Public hackathons made up 64 percent of the total competitions run in 2018. Of late, hackathons have become commonplace for job recruiting and pitching startups.

Le Nhan Tam, chief technology officer at IBM Vietnam, said that "Finding talent is part of the appeal for IBM as the main sponsor." He said the American multinational tech company would sign the best six teams into its support program for start-ups with a year's access to IBM cloud computing services worth up to $120,000.

"The ability to work nonstop and thrive under pressure, along with ingenuity to complete a tech challenge, is valuable to fledgling startups," he said.

Big corporations embrace hackathons for several reasons. IBM holds in-house hackathons on a regular basis to stay alert to emerging tech developments and enliven their R&D efforts.

According to tech-oriented news website TechGig, a hackathon culture has helped Facebook create some of its best features.

The famous Like button was created in a company hackathon in 2007 and an intern came up with the idea of tagging people in comments. What started as some informal brainstorming between Mark Zuckerberg and his team in the early days became a company culture.

The process, not the outcome

Duy and his mates ended up winning nothing. During the demo, the system of integrated circuits almost went down because of overloading. "Truth be told, we did not stand out in this competition. Our project had many limits," he said and the team nodded in agreement.

However, "hackathons are important more for the process than the outcome," said Michael Croft, head of UNESCO Hanoi Office.

He said they offer young people "opportunities to sit together and to be creative, and to go through the process of co-creation." Hackathons also give the youth a glimpse of life after school, and the feeling that they can accomplish anything they want. "Our job is to give them practical projects to work on, not to tell them what to do but to give them the time and space to just do it," he said.

Six prizes are awarded. The top award goes to a chatbot created by "Not a Bug" team. It uses Natural Language Processing and other technologies to help students get information about their upcoming exams, course credits and other academic requirements.

Even conflicts work

A team works on a traffic program at the hackathon held by the School of Information and Communication Technology (SoITC) under the Hanoi University of Science and Technology, June 26-28, 2020. Photo by SoITC.

A team works on a traffic program at the hackathon held by the School of Information and Communication Technology (SoITC) under the Hanoi University of Science and Technology, June 26-28, 2020. Photo by SoITC.

Nguyen Van Thanh, who works in a team of five people using Natural Language Processing to prevent the spread of fake news amid the Covid-19 crisis, said participating in the hackathon is cool because he can learn new tech skills from talented coders at a much faster pace.

"Sitting in front of my computer alone is totally different from trying to build a real app with a team," said the information systems major, adding that even team conflicts can spark new ideas and working as a team has changed the way he thinks about coding.

He said further that there are other practical skills he can gain at hackathons that schools fail to teach, such as recruiting teammates with a diverse mix of knowledge and experience.

"It is easy to find a master in almost anything here," he said, pointing to Duy’s team. "If I want to find someone who specializes in Artificial Intelligence, I will definitely go ask those guys."

At collegiate hackathons, students learn from one another, software coders team up with hardware engineers. The School of Information and Communication Technology also invited about 10 tech professionals to mentor students "coding through night," said a Facebook post by the organizers.

"Tech guys spend a lot of time sitting in front of computer screens. I am not exaggerating but rarely do we meet face to face," said Thanh, who enjoyed meeting fellow techies at the competition. Although the team didn’t win, Thanh had a good time. "The best part – it’s fun," he said.

Out to change the world

"My career is not going to be sitting in front of a computer from 9 to 5, seven days a week. I want to create tech products which have an impact on people," said Dat, charge of back-end design as well as artificial intelligence solutions for the mobile app monitoring tap water quality.

The 22-year-old computer science major has a confident attitude. Not many people know that the young man with a gentle smile belongs to the Tay ethnic minority community and grew up in a in a remote mountainous province on the border with China.

"I am gay," he declared proudly. "I count myself lucky that my family allows me to completely and entirely be myself. I am encouraged to reach my potential whatever that may be."

Upon entering the Hanoi University of Science and Technology, he decided to come out to his parents and his close circle of friends.

Now, he feels so comfortable in his own skin that no social stigma can stop him from coming out whenever he wants to whoever.

The tech community may be one of the least threatening environments for people of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, and queer (LGBTQ+), he pointed out. "In the tech community, it is merit based, you showcase your abilities through coding and programming." However, as far as he knows, he is the only openly gay guy on campus.

Dat is specifically interested in advancing human rights for women and LGBTQ+. People always fear what they don’t understand, he said. The young developer wants to build better tech products that would raise public awareness of equality and diversity so that "together we can create an environment where everyone gets to be their true selves."

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