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Inside NZTA’s hackathon to improve road safety in New Zealand

Top image photo credit: Mrs Jones Photography / Michelle Jones

It’s no secret that New Zealand roads are dangerous. One life lost due to a vehicular collision is too many, but when hundreds of lives are being lost a year… that’s simply unacceptable.

That’s the thinking of the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA), who recently hosted the Save One More Life Hackathon. Held at the Government agency’s new Innovation Zone in Auckland, the event was a digital innovation weekend focused on road safety. The Hackathon brought together problem solvers, creatives, developers, analysts, behavioural experts, user experience and service designers, and members of the general public – all to reimagine how technology can make a meaningful difference to road safety in Aotearoa.

The Hackathon was started to invite the public to use NZTA data and insights, along with emerging technology, to generate ideas for making New Zealand’s roads safer. As with a lot of hackathons, teams formed on a Friday evening and worked on-site (alongside business, technical and subject matter mentors) to create, prototype, and test concepts before pitching to a panel of judges on Sunday afternoon. The judges were Harry Wilson, Leigh Mitchell and Steve Chazin from NZTA, Datacom’s Greg Davidson, and Auckland Transport’s Cynthia Gillespie.

More than 100 people came together for the hackathon. Registration filled up within 48 hours after they opened – and the waitlist of people interested in attending eventually grew to about 90.

“I’ve been moved by the passion, the energy, the creativity and the ideas of the teams over the weekend,” says NZTA safety and environment director Harry Wilson.

But for all the incredible talent and passion for making roads safer, there could only be one top winner. License Me took home the top honours by tackling the problem of young drivers on restricted licenses. In their pitch to judges, License Me said restricted drivers represent 4.6 percent of the driving population, but were involved in 14 percent of fatal and serious injury crashes.

Licence Me estimated their concept could save 55 young lives a year by increasing the time they spent behind the wheel with feedback from experienced drivers so they learned good habits early. The team proposed developing an app to track driver progress that focuses on controlling speed, breaking, accelerating and cornering. The tech sitting behind this solution would use a range of sensors, including those in a mobile phone, real-time feedback loops, and a digital log of driver hours available on an NZTA portal. The incentive for young drivers would be to learn good driving skills and reduce their time on a restricted license from 18 to 12 months. As part of their prize, License Me will be working with NZTA on what might be next for their solution – including perhaps making the tech a widely-used reality.

The Licence Me team had 10 members – seven from a Hamilton firm who came to the Hackathon to “have some fun on a team-building exercise,” according to group leader Jourdan Templeton, chief technical officer of Aware Group, a company that uses data and machine learning to predict the rate of student drop-outs from university courses.

NZTA’s Wilson says the NZTA will also talk to other teams about developing their concepts.

Second place went to Safe Sense for a concept that involved placing laser sensors and cameras at corners to warn drivers of vehicles crossing a centre line. Safe Sense told the judges that 50 percent of crashes occur on corners.

Third place went to the Crash Test Dummies team for a phone app concept that would show drivers in real-time how fast they are travelling on a particular road and warn them to slow down if they were going faster than the average speed of other road users.

NZTA’s director of connected journeys, Martin McMullan, says major sponsors of the hackathon were Datacom, Microsoft, Amazon Web Services, IBM, Google Cloud, Consegna Cloud and Uber.

Another NZTA hackathon is being planned for September this year.

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