Industry Hackathon helps solve “digital divide” while supporting professional development

On June 4, 2021, participants from across Alberta presented unique solutions and tactics to the issue of rural internet access gaps following the month-long Bridging the Connectivity Challenge Hackathon. This event, which was spearheaded by Cybera and ISAIC, brought together more than 100 registrants to address the following objectives:

  1. Use available data to assess the connectivity barriers and gaps that exist throughout Alberta. This includes identifying communities that are underserved.
  2. Assess the correlation between social and economic indicators, and the speed of connectivity, to determine the role high-speed internet plays in community sustainability.

Between May 3-30, the hackers leveraged speed test data supplied by the Rural Municipalities of Alberta (RMA) — in collaboration with CIRAOokla, and mLab to identify existing connectivity gaps in rural Alberta.

The issue of rural connectivity is one that Cybera has been advocating on for years. “This is a decades-old problem, and one that’s become more pervasive, and obvious, now that we are struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Barb Carra, President and CEO of Cybera, told participants during the opening ceremonies of the hackathon. “This has a huge social and economic impact across Alberta.”

Providing real-life examples of connectivity issues

Over the course of the hackathon, Cybera and ISAIC provided workshops for participants to provide context on why the connectivity barrier exists in rural communities, and how solving it could support social and economic development. This background information proved especially important, as 60% of participants surveyed said they were unaware of the problem of rural connectivity prior to the hackathon. 

Additional presentations were delivered to participants by two rural-focused organizations, who gave first-hand accounts of how poor quality internet was slowing their growth. The first was Naiad Labs, a remote health care platform that works with AI and machine learning to improve patient care in rural communities. The second was, which uses advanced drones to help farmers identify invasive weeds to better protect their crops and reduce the amount of pesticides being used on farms. 

The hackers also heard from groups who are working to bridge the digital divide on behalf of their communities, like RMA President Paul McLauchlin, who also personally faces rural connectivity challenges. To ensure he could deliver the presentation, McLauchlin scheduled the meeting so it wouldn’t overlap with  children’s class time, otherwise he says his video would have likely dropped.

President McLauchilin’s presentation showed how dire this issue is for many rural communities. Of the speed tests conducted by CIRA for the RMA, 90% of them failed to meet the CRTC’s mandate of at least 50 Mbps download / 10 Mbps upload internet speeds.

Team M&M showing off how family incomes collate with connectivity speeds.
The winning teams
  • Personal Best Award ($1000) – Team M&M, for analyzing connectivity speeds and contrasting it to family incomes. 
  • Social Impact Award ($1,000) – Team Solo, for exploring whether areas with better internet access had fewer layoffs due to COVID-19.
  • Best Technical Implementation ($1,000) – Team Data Dusters, for building relational databases and developing creative maps and visualizations.
  • Best Overall Award ($2,000) – Team Beantime, for their work on creating awareness on the issues of rural connectivity through an easily accessible tool.

Keenan Viney, who worked solo, won the Social Impact Award for his analysis of Federal Employment Insurance and Canada Emergency Response Benefit data. It revealed how communities with poor internet speeds saw an increase in the number of social service benefit requests. Viney, who has participated in several hackathons over the past three years, leveraged his background in economics to identify the correlation between these two factors.

Team Beantime’s website is helping users digest public data about connectivity issues in Alberta

Team Beantime, made up of first time hackthoners Robert Nguyen, Satveer Singh, and Erica Trinh, won the Best Overall Project award for their work on increasing awareness  on the socio-economic issues associated with poor rural connectivity. Singh was inspired to join the hackathon after reading about it on LinkedIn, and encouraged his two friends to take part. The team presented a usable website that can help the general public advocate to local politicians on why investments in rural connectivity are needed. “Looking at the data, I was pretty surprised to see all the places that don’t meet upload or download requirements,” says Nguyen. “We have been really spoiled in urban areas with fibre internet”.

All three are working to pivot their careers to more tech focused industries, so working remotely on a project like this was valuable experience. “I’m hoping that more comes from this [project], and I can help support myself and the community,” says Singh. “In light of everything that has taken place, I wanted to work towards something that was actionable and scalable.”

In the same vein, Ngyuen is looking to transition out of chemical engineering into the tech sector. “The fact that I have this hackathon under my belt really helps me stay motivated and gives me a little gold star on my resume,” says Robert.

The top four projects can be viewed here. To learn more about this hackathon, visit the Bridging the Connectivity Challenge website.