48 hour hackathon on a train: Hacktrain 2017

OPINION · Talent / 8th December 2017

In November, some of the ORM team took part in this year’s Hacktrain hackathon event. With three trains all travelling on routes from London – with final destinations of Bordeaux, Frankfurt and Cambridge, via Paris and Brighton – it was an intense few days that left us all exhilarated, yet exhausted. As a mentor on the Customer Experience and Rolling Stock route, I got to see some entrepreneurial and aspiring talent from engineering, design, analytical and development backgrounds. ORM was also a sponsor of the combined conference and hackathon for 2017, giving us the opportunity to network with our peers in the industry. It was a great experience for all involved, and below each of the talented ORM-ers who took part in the hackathon share their experiences of the event.

Olivia Robinson, Designer

I was slightly apprehensive prior to Hacktrain, as I wasn't sure what to expect and it was all a bit of a mystery to start off with. We got there bright and early on Friday morning and once the conference talks got going it was amazing – my favourite was the Hyperloop one. Seeing where the rail industry could go and how it’s already within touching distance is so exciting!

The hackathon then kicked off and it was intense from the word go. Due to an unforeseen incident we had to switch up our plans and earlier than expected legged it to Kings Cross to get the Eurostar to Paris. We ended up pitching (or shouting) our ideas across the station and forming our groups on the train. On Saturday morning we went to Frankfurt, where my team ended up creating a feedback bot to feed real-time customer complaints for Train Operating Companies (TOCs) to turn into actionable outcomes to improve the overall level of customer service on a day-to-day running. Currently TOCs do feedback surveys every 6 months and the methods are outdated and ineffective. I ended up pitching to a set of judges from TFL and Network Rail, which was pretty intimidating, and somehow managed to do this after only a 20 minute nap in 48 hours!

On the whole it was an amazing experience; the wealth of knowledge of the mentors was very impressive and I found that I really am a train geek and could have talked forever about the industry. I learnt so much and made some new contacts who had made an impact on me. Where else do you get access to so much insight and experience for 48 hours solidly? I would definitely do it again, but I would want more than 20 minutes sleep next time!

Zbigniew (Zeebee) Siwiec, Head of Nearshore Development

I took multi-modal transport to get to the Hacktrain conference, setting off from Poland at 4am and taking a taxi, plane, train and the underground. The conference itself hosted top notch enterprises and showcased the best of the rail sector sharing their views on the state of the industry. What I liked most is that the conference was an opportunity to underpin the transformation of the transport industry and the motivation for future technology to emerge.

Then on to the hackathon – overall I thought it was a fantastic event. A slight logistical nightmare that at times felt like mayhem, but on the whole I was impressed with how Hack Partners managed to coordinate 120 people across three routes and two time zones! The highlight for me was the social connections that I made, meeting people from different countries and different businesses. It was great to see companies like Trainline and Silverrail leading discussions and encouraging team bonding, even though everyone had different skillsets and we were on strict, short deadlines. It was an intensive period of problem-solving over just 48 hours, but we had encouraging mentors (include ORM’s MD, Keith Nation) who guided us with our innovations and helped us prepare for the pitch at the end of the weekend.

I have never really experienced a hackathon or similar styled event before, so I really had no idea what I was getting into. I didn’t quite anticipate how full on the 48-hour event would be, but I loved the process! Analysing the problem, designing a realistic, innovative solution and developing a working outcome that could be implemented straight away was intense. I was impressed with how everyone in my team was able to quickly adapt to the various problems we faced. I suppose when you’re working with such a tight deadline you have to do whatever it takes to get through.

Personally, my favourite part was the realisation after the pitches had ended that we had created a working solution to a real industry-wide problem that had been highlighted by Eurostar, which they could then take on board. In essence it was probably the most stressful, exhausting thing I may have ever done. Would I do it again? Yes – where else can you innovate an industry in just 48 hours?!

Keith Nation Keith Nation Managing Director & CTO Keith Nation