UB Students "hacked" solutions that plague our Great Lakes.
The Erie Hack is a data and engineering competition that unites coders, developers, engineers, and water experts to generate enduring solutions to Lake Erie’s biggest challenges. The competition includes $100,000 in prizes for the most creative and effective hacks. Working from challenge statements derived from ideation sessions with NASA representatives and regional stakeholders, teams were charged with creating innovative digital tools, hardware innovations, and engineering solutions that build “the Blue Economy”: the emergent economic sector dedicated to the sustainable stewardship of bodies of freshwater around the globe. The Erie Hack provides high school students, college students, and professionals the opportunity to combine their own expertise with solid mentoring to create technologies with the potential to invigorate Lake Erie’s environment and economy.
The Initiative formally started on January 26 with the rollout of the Buffalo Ideation session which was facilitated by NASA at the Buffalo Yacht Club. The session was attended by a diverse group of more than two dozen stakeholders that included several UB faculty, staff and students, along with representatives from area community and environmental organizations, entrepreneurs, government officials and others who were all interested in working toward a sustainable future for Lake Erie. This ideation and four others across the basin resulted in creating five challenge statements.
The Erie Hack official launch in Buffalo occurred on February 28 with a key information session held for interested participants including budding entrepreneurs, community members, students, faculty and other parties. The interactive two hour session included and overall briefing on the program from the Cleveland Water Alliance and a deeper dive into the Great Lakes ecosystem and the challenges it currently faces. The session then moved into a series of self-selected roundtables for potential teams to seek counsel and advice from area leaders throughout the environmental sector, entrepreneurship node and groundbreaking Great Lakes Research.
Over 20 regional “hacks” then commenced across the basin in six cities and two countries over the course of a month. The Buffalo Hack took place on March 10 and 11 with six teams actively forming ideas, analyzing solutions and presenting their findings to a mock judge panel of community leaders who provided subject matter expertise and critical counsel of how projects could be improved. The teams then advanced their concepts over the next month and pitched their ideas at the Buffalo Quarter Finals held on April 4. A panel of distinguished community leaders (representing the Nature Conservancy, Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, the Alliance for the Great Lakes, Green Machine and The School of Engineering) formed a judging panel that evaluated the merits of the proposals through a rubric of factors. The top four teams were selected to advance to the semi-finals held in Detroit eleven days later.
Three out of four of the Buffalo based teams came in within the top half of the 18 member field in Detroit and gained an invitation to the Water Innovation Summit and final Erie Hack pitch competition in Cleveland on May 2 and 3. The two day summit was a who’s who of the Great Lakes Community and advanced thought leadership on a myriad of issues facing the challenged ecosystem. The summit also proved to be a very successful one for two of the Buffalo based Erie hack teams. Z-Spools, which was created by Lorena James (a senior at the Nichols School) took first place in the K-12 category and Extreme Comms came in second overall.
At the heart of the Erie Hack initiative was an attempt to provide students and professionals with the opportunity to combine their own expertise with solid mentoring to create technologies with the potential to revitalize Lake Erie’s environment and economy. If that were not enough, it also employed a new model of leveraging innovation, entrepreneurship, purpose and creativity to serve nature. With this new model we set rather ambitious goals and outcomes—not because we could, but because that is what is needed to address the continuing challenges Lake Erie faces.
Appealing to hack participants was not our only objective—engaging the community itself in helping to rediscover the importance of its lake and the role technology can play in doing that was also paramount. While we were not able to implement the planned decision-makers tour, key leaders from business, civic and municipal government participated in both the semi-final hacks in Detroit and the summit in Cleveland, with most of the judging panels made up of these individuals. Business and civic leaders also stepped up to play a key mentoring role for the teams offering them counsel and tutelage for their vast experience that proved invaluable. Here in Buffalo, groups like Waterkeeper, Alliance for the Great Lakes and the Nature Conservancy helped mold team ideas into more feasible and realistic approaches. In addition, businesses such as Green Machine, 42 North, Blackstone Launchpad and others instilled an entrepreneurial frame that greatly assisted the more academic focused contestants.
The program also created a special Erie Hack High School component that reached 500 students translating into 150 actively engaged participants. The top twenty-five participants were selected to compete in a day-long event in Cleveland which resulted in the High School Summit in Cleveland where Buffalo’s own Lorena James took home the top place and a cash equivalent prize of $1,000.
Numerous national figures and thought leaders in the blue economy and water space participated in the Erie Hack Water Innovation Summit including representation from NASA, Sea Grant, Ohio EPA, IBM, NYC Environmental Protection Bureau, DC Water, Great Lakes Protection Fund, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and others.
Finally, we also witnessed a greater understanding and appreciation for the role Lake Erie plays from the teams that participated. 90% of participating teams now see water work in our region as more critically needed than prior to the competition. In addition, 65% of teams feel more connected to water resources in our region and 73% are more interested in water based innovation.