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Slaving away surrounded by cables, cans of Coke and colored lights

Four Euregional mobility challenges that demand smart technological solutions. 55 hackers, students and young professionals, from five different European countries. 48 hours. The second edition of the Hack4SmartServices hackathon has begun. Slaving away surrounded by cables, cans of Coke and colored lights.

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Saturday night, 11:59 p.m. A blue Mercedes van is parked out in the parking lot, a fake grass doormat and a stray plastic palm tree on the ground in front of it, colored party lights hung up on the side of the van. Dave Alken is ready to dive into his bed in his “mobile command center” as he calls the van. The Conclusion senior project manager has had a long day and needs to get up early again. Tomorrow marks Day 3 of the hackathon at the Brightlands Smart Services Campus. Dave is one of the 30 coaches providing the participants with expertise and tips. Among other things, he pays attention to the group dynamic, the viability of ideas, the underlying business model and the oh-so-important question “Why?”: for which target group is the proposed solution relevant?

“It is important for companies to realize that a lot is also happening here in the Euregion.”

The hackathon is a great way to motivate experienced and young talent to join forces and think about the future, according to Dave, who is “very happy” about all the possibilities the Campus offers. After all, the much-discussed phenomenon of brain-drain still presents a major challenge for Southern Limburg. He lives in Meerssen, never having traded the south for the Randstad like many others raised in this part of the Netherlands. He did however shuttle back and forth for years; finding the right job in this part of the country was still a challenge. Thanks to the Conclusion office at the campus, this is no longer necessary. “It is important for companies to realize that a lot is also happening here in the Euregion.”

Young and proud on solutions

There sure is a lot going on in room 1.35, at any rate. An enormous screen takes up the entire corner of the office (“we want to livestream the open house at school tomorrow”), and cables, laptops and even more cans of Coke and Red Bull have taken over the rest of the room. Welcome to Team Arcus territory. This team consists of six young people between the ages of 17 and 19 who are all enrolled in an ICT program at Arcus College, and one student from Zuyd University of Applied Sciences. They have summed up “pain relievers” on large sheets of paper: reducing traffic jams, more efficient use of fuel and “no more human error”. And they have Transsync to thank for it all. This system is designed to enable driverless trucks to form “a sort of train” on the highway, so that they can continue to drive very close to one another. The short distance between the trucks leads to a reduction in drag or air resistance, as well as fewer reasons to brake or accelerate; better for the environment and the wallet. The financial advantage, cost savings on fuel, will be shared evenly among the participating transport companies so as not to put the owner of the truck at the front of the “train” at a disadvantage. It represents the answer to the challenge formulated by the Province of Limburg: what will our mobility system look like in the future? Just like the Central Bureau for Statistics, Trendsportal and Q-Park, the Province of Limburg is also one of the track sponsors of the event. The Transsync business model is based on the sale of the system along with the corresponding software. When will it be perfected and ready to be used in the real world? “In 2035.”

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Things are however quiet on the seventh floor. With a view of Heerlen by night that may easily be described as phenomenal, this is the hackers’ temporary campground. Colored igloo tents with air mattresses have been pitched in front of the windows. Ida Weber brings in a lantern so that the tired participants at least won’t stumble and fall as they crawl into their tents.  She was part of the organizational team during the first edition of Hack4SmartServices, and is happy to roll up her sleeves and help out once again. Just like the former hockey player Lijsbeth van Kessel, who has represented our damp, chilly little country on two occasions internationally, and who has her own Wikipedia page. After deciding to leave the hockey field, utterly lacking in any technical background whatsoever, Lijsbeth came up with an app and threw herself into the tech world. These days she works for BeMyApp, a co-organizer of the hackathon. Lijsbeth and colleague Marc de Vreede are very impressed by the enthusiasm to work. “Everyone has been toiling away in their own little caves for over a day and a half.”Sam Collins, a 17-year-old from Heerlen, attended an artificial intelligence workshop at the Campus beforehand (“really interesting”), and then registered for the hackathon. He’s secretly kind of proud; he doesn’t think the others would expect a young group to “come up with a solution like this.” Just like his fellow team members, he finds the work environment inspiring, and certainly a vast improvement over the standard classroom where they usually spend their days. Arcus student adviser Richard Ramakers drops in to take a look and asks how this concept “can be integrated into the school system.” The young people are going to think about it, after they have slept, that is. They only got about two hours of shut-eye the night before, and the end of the to-do list is far from being in sight.

Traffic jams

When the hackers need a break from all the hard work, they chill out for a little while with a game of ping-pong or play around with drones. Gráinne McAuliffe however doesn’t have the time for this today. An Irishwoman who works for Q-Park, she has joined three other international colleagues (“we didn’t know each other beforehand”) and international business student Jordi van Osta from the Netherlands to study current and future parking problems. Although the media regularly talks about how the younger generations don’t place as much value on owning a car and are happy to share one, the team’s figures tell a remarkable story. While 14 to 17% of the millennial and Generation X demographics are willing to forgo this, Generation Z, or people born between 1995 and 2010, are (for the time being) considerably less inclined to do so. Of these, only 9% are interested in shared use. This is why Park2 is not based on the shared use of vehicles, but on the reduction of traffic jams in medium-sized cities caused by drivers who are frantically looking for a place to park. The app shows drivers the shortest route to parking locations with a sufficient number of available spaces based on individual preferences such as price and proximity. The team members were initially rather nervous; what can you achieve if no one has any knowledge of programming? The nerves have since subsided; perhaps getting eight hours of sleep has contributed to this. The feeling that they are representing a future-proof idea might also be behind the calmer attitude; after all, driverless cars need to be parked somewhere too.

If you’re not fast, at least be sociable

Since half of its members are women, Team Turtle tackles the challenges from an entirely different perspective. Community interests take priority. “Thanks to social media, we have more contacts than ever. In spite of this, we regularly feel lonely because of a lack of real-life connections,” Marcella Nuebler says. With her in-depth knowledge of business intelligence and smart services, the 23-year-old German believes that focusing solely on a technological solution can lead to tunnel vision and the tendency to forget the previously mentioned question of why. Travel Mate brings travelers together who have at least one common interest. Car owners rent out one or more spots in their cars, the goal being to make the group’s travel time as interesting and pleasant as possible. No more awkward silences and moments of boredom! Offering an app and a website, the first phase of the plan focuses on international students who need fast cross-border transportation. The team knows from personal experience that it can often take hours to reach certain destinations in the Euregion. Travel Mate offers an alternative that can even yield environmental benefits. An expansion of the number of target groups is possible, such as bringing lonely elderly travelers and young minds together. They are convinced their approach is a good one. The biggest challenge the social team faces is communicating a convincing message during the final pitch tomorrow. They will resume practicing their pitch in ten minutes, once their stomachs have been filled with pizza and offline conversations have given their inspiration a boost.

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Beginning hackers come up with smartest mobility solution

It was his very first hackathon, and the same applies to most of his team members. For Filmon Isayas (29), it was “mostly about the experience”. They never expected their Borderless Mobility idea to be chosen by the jury as the most promising application. Offering a carpool service for electric-car sharing among other things, they weren’t afraid to take on parts of three out of the four challenges in coming up with their solution. Team BoMo won a cash prize of 1500 Euros along with coaching vouchers to help them produce a prototype. According to Isayas, an operations manager for Q-Park in his everyday life, they haven’t had a chance to discuss the details yet. “We met during the hackathon and live in different countries, but we might get around to it at some point in the future.” Team Turtle’s social idea also garnered praise from the jury; the team ended up in second place. They were followed by the young Arcus team who won third prize for their Transsync plan.

The second edition of Hack4SmartServices attracted participants from the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Sweden and Denmark. The initiators of the event included the Province of Limburg and the Brightlands Smart Services Campus (working in part within the context of Techruption), and BeMyApp was the collaboration partner. Experts from Accenture, Conclusion and the track sponsors Province of Limburg, Central Bureau for Statistics, Trendsportal and Q-Park assisted the teams during the hackathon.

Author: Gwen Teo. Translation: Allison Klein