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Creating environment-friendly apps with NEA data

last updated 03 November 2017
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Clean & Green Hackathon attracts 170 participants.

Data scientists and sustainability experts rubbed shoulders with programmers and concerned citizens at a recent Hackathon organised by the National Environment Agency (NEA), as they sought to co-create solutions to safeguard Singapore’s environment and to conserve resources.

Speaking at the Clean & Green Hackathon, NEA’s Chief Executive Officer Mr Andrew Tan said the event was an experiment on several levels – “first, whether we can find creative and innovative ways to use datasets to make a difference to our daily lives; second, whether we can form a community of app developers who can develop interesting solutions to some of our pressing environmental challenges; and third, as a process by itself, it is one way that public sector agencies such as NEA can work with the community to co-develop solutions.”

For the Hackathon, NEA released several datasets, some of them for the very first time, to enable participants to build useful and innovative apps in two thematic areas – “Safeguard our clean and green environment” and “Conserve our precious resources”.

The datasets included energy consumption for buildings registered under the Energy Smart Building Labelling Scheme, detailed household energy consumption figures from a national study, and crowd-sourced littering, public cleanliness and food hygiene reports. Also available were datasets from apps such as WeatherLah and X-Dengue, which were already making use of government data and were widely used by the public in Singapore.

The Hackathon, which was held at the Ngee Ann Kongsi Auditorium at University Town, National University of Singapore, took place on 26-28 April and attracted some 170 participants. Over the course of the event, the teams developed a total of 21 environmental prototypes with the help of roving experts and mentor clinics.

The winning app was Parent Pool, which links parents living in the same neighbourhood and have children attending the same school, to enable them to make carpooling arrangements.

“The idea for Parent Pool came about as we were looking through the datasets given. From the start, we wanted our app to solve major pain points that Singaporeans experience,” said Mr Chan Hao Yee, a member of the winning team. “From the datasets, we learnt that traffic congestion is a serious issue for many Singaporeans.” 

Parent Pool targets the tight-knit community of parents who share the common goal of ensuring the safety of their children. “We believe that this community-based approach will be more effective in engaging and retaining users.”

The app helps generate useful data such as the driving habits of Singapore parents and the distribution of households with school-going children. “In the future, Parent Pool can also be extended to cover other areas that parents may be concerned about, such as school hygiene, which can help prevent food poisoning or flu outbreaks in schools by collecting relevant data,” added Mr Chan.

First runner up at the Hackathon was TerrificLah!, an app that pulls TrafficLah and NEA weather data to show the relation between traffic incidents and the weather. The app uses map visualisation to help drivers pre-plan their trips and even encourages them to use public transport to avoid getting caught in jams. It also has the potential to co-relate traffic flow and air quality data to see if increased vehicle traffic will result in lower air quality.

In developing the app, the team zoomed in on the largest datasets provided in the Hackathon – the log files of the WeatherLah and TrafficLah apps which contained about one and a half year’s worth of weather and traffic data in Singapore.

Writing about the Hackathon in his blog, team member Mr Dean Wang said it felt great to have several “wow” moments during the team’s pitch at the event. “We were able to create hourly plots for traffic intensity and incidents, to draw real-time heat maps of vehicle density, and correlate weather and traffic to predict traffic jams with rain forecast before the congestion starts to form up.”

Other apps that stood out at the Hackathon included BINiT, which makes use of social gaming to encourage recycling, with users earning points when they recycle at QR coded bins; Simple Flyer, which makes use of near field communications (NFC) technology to push electronic flyers to people in the vicinity, thereby cutting down on paper waste and littering; and a Taxi Pollution Reduction App which aims to reduce taxi fuel consumption by helping the drivers locate waiting passengers. Passengers swipe their phones at NFC sensors and the data is collected to let taxi drivers know where they are.

Data sharing at NEA

The sharing of data for the Clean & Green Hackathon is in line with NEA’s move to provide real-time environment-related information to the public, businesses and government agencies. These include data related to various aspects of public health and environment protection, which is being made available to help the public better plan their daily activities and protect their health. Through its data sharing initiatives, NEA also aims to encourage greater community ownership of environmental issues through crowdsourcing activities, and to contribute to research in areas of public health and climate change.

NEA is currently building a Data Exchange Hub to operationalise its data sharing strategies and enable the two-way exchange of data. The hub will integrate datasets directly via API (application programming interface) suites that convert the data into suitable formats before information is pushed to online platforms for public use. In the longer term, the hub will also serve as a platform to facilitate the sharing of external datasets from app developers.

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