Friday, June 12, 2015

The DARPA Robotics Challenge 2015 as an exemplar for other hackathons

Last update: Thursday 6/11/15
One of the really great things that happened in the world of computer technology last week was the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC0 on Friday 6/5/15 and Saturday 6/6/15. As described on the Website for the event:

  • The DRC was a competition of robot systems and software teams vying to develop robots capable of assisting humans in responding to natural and man-made disasters. It was designed to be extremely difficult. Participating teams, representing some of the most advanced robotics research and development organizations in the world, collaborated and innovated on a very short timeline to develop the hardware, software, sensors, and human-machine control interfaces that enabled their robots to complete a series of challenge tasks selected by DARPA for their relevance to disaster response.
In other words, the DRC was a high level, civic hackathon wherein competing teams developed apps for very special mobile platforms, a/k/a "robots". It could have been just as boring for remote viewers as the hundreds of other hackathons that been played in the last five years ... but it wasn't!!! ... :-)

I was only able to watch it for a few moments from time to time on Friday, but I  continuously monitored it on my laptop and and on my smartphone from start to finish on Saturday because it was so exciting -- even the dull stretches wherein the robots just stood there, frozen like statues for what seemed like eternity until their hackers uploaded the instruction packages for the next tasks. 

Fans were cheering in the stands, something that has also happened at other hackathons; but I was also cheering at home and calling friends and texting colleagues with the same message, "You gotta see this! You gotta see this!!!" -- something I had never done while other hackathons had been running. So hats off to DARPA for putting on such a great show, not just for the thousands of fans on site, but also for the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of us who were following the action via our laptops and smartphones ... :-)

Lessons learned ... 
Of course I posted a Storify of the second day of the DRC on this blog, and I'm happy to report that my Storify has received more views in the first few days than any of the Storyfies for the other hackathons that I had previously posted. So I have to ask:
  • Why was the DRC so exciting for remote viewers while it was occurring?
  • And why are so many people viewing the Storify now that it's over?
Given that I had previously posted some suggestions of what I thought were obvious ways to make hackathons more fun for remote viewers, the first thing I did was to check which of my suggestions had been implemented by the DRC. Here's my rundown:

  • A blog/Website that contained continuously updated information about the hackathon. Tweets could provide links to this site ==> YES ... and DARPA provided an app for smartphones that contained most of the info on the Website
  • Official #hashtag(s) for tweets related to the hackathon ==> YES ... #DARPADRC
  • Official @handles to identify tweets from the sponsor of the hackathon ==> YES ... @DARPA, but DARPA only tweeted a few times 
  • Official list of teams that were competing ==> YES 
  • Rosters of the members of each team ==> NO
  • Handles for the members of each team ==> NO, but the teams had handles that some of them used to notify viewers about what they were working on from time to time
  • List of the issues/tasks that each team was trying to address ==> YES
  • Platforms and tools used by each team ==> YES ... the DRC Website  & app provided descriptions of each competing robot
  • Provide links to the issues and roster pages that were retweeted from time to time for the benefit of viewers who were tuning in and out ==> YES ... the info was continuously updated on the DRC app and the DRC Website
  • Announce the first, second, and third place teams as soon as the hackathon ended and the rationale for judges' decisions ==> YES
  • Live streaming of the event ==> YES ... via multiple Youtube channels accessible via the DRC app and/or the DRC Website.

Finally, DARPA greatly enhanced its live streaming with running commentaries by informed hosts on camera and with links to highlight videos of action that had taken place earlier, e.g., its hilarious video of the pratfalls that many of the robots took on the first day of the DRC and the four hour video that includes highlights of the entire DRC. 

Three cheers for DARPA!!! ... :-)

(Note: all of the links referenced in the preceding paragraphs are included in my Storify of the DRC -- which probably explains why so many people viewed it.)