We Won the Co-op Digital challenge at HackManchester 2016

We Won the Co-op Digital challenge at HackManchester 2016Preview: We Won the Co-op Digital challenge at HackManchester 2016

We couldn’t believe it, after only 4 months training we had managed to pull off a Trump-sized upset. We won the Co-op Digital challenge and built a working natural language processor and AI app in just 24 hours at the largest hackathon in the North, HackManchester.

It wasn’t easy by any means, in fact it was the hardest piece coding we’ve ever undertaken, against stiff competition from 18 other teams and against coders and engineers with decades of experience we were able to bring home the top prize, a clutch of PS4s and iPads.

The challenge set by Co-op Digital aimed to look at combating the problem of loneliness. The brief was left intentionally broad as loneliness can be a problem that affects anyone in wider society.

With that in mind, we thought it best to try and narrow our target user group down, a study we found from Age UK, stated that more than a million older people go for over a month without speaking to a friend, neighbour or family member. We set out to use technology to solve the problem of loneliness for a generation who are technologically disconnected.

We devised a natural language processing app for the elderly called ‘Call James’ which older people would be able phone, ‘James’ would then ask them what their interests are and then pass this information onto relevant interest groups and charities in their local area. Those groups would then be able to discern the best way to help this older person.

We thought that in approaching the problem this way we were taking the onus off the lonely elderly person and by using a piece of tech, the phone, that most elderly people have access too we’d be able to reach a great section of people who have been neglected by a lot of the tech innovations of the recent past.

Elderly people would find a message and phone number on the bottom of their receipt saying ‘Interested in meeting some new people? Call James’, after dialling this number users would be connected to our AI, ‘James’.

‘James’ was written entirely in Node.js, a language none of us had ever seen before starting at Northcoders, we also used best practices development techniques learned on the course such as TDD to make sure we were on the right path.

To handle the speaking and voice recognition element of ‘James’ we used a new API Twilio, we’d not touched this API before so we had to learn it’s strengths and weakness on the fly. However, after 13 weeks at Northcoders we were pretty adept at evaluating and picking up new technologies fast so we happily rose to this extra challenge.

In order to process and evaluate what a user said to ‘James’, we used the API for the supercomputer IBM Watson, a tool we had dealt with at Northcoders, I remember being pretty wowed when I first realised that we live in a world where a newbie coders like my team and I have access to such powerful technology after only a few weeks of training.

At about 3.30am, after trying to write some tricky reduce functions, I passed out and had the most surreal set of dreams. I dreamt that we’d given up, we couldn’t get parts of the app to talk to each other and gone home. I dreamt that a group of physicists at the event had written a new language called ‘O’ in 24 hours and this bringing about technological revolution. I also dreamt that I’d seen Chris, one of the tutors at Northcoders at the event - he confronted us and said ‘Wow did you see what those physicists have done, surely you guys have pulled something out of the bag?”. I remember feeling an incredibly sinking feeling in those dreams.

But luckily, it was all just a dream. As the sun rose that morning and we awoke from our naps we were able to smooth out the last few bugs and tie together a working prototype for ‘Call James’.

The winning team was composed of career changers, we were all in our mid twenties - early thirties and with that we’d brought a bunch of life experience to the problem. We answered the Co-op’s challenge in a clear logical way, using technology to solve a real life problem. With the excellent coding grounding we’d be given at Northcoders coupled with good common sense we were able to win the day!

Jack from the Call James team