The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) is running a series of hackathons; intensive events to assess and analyse large datasets. Participants are drawing information from important NERC digital assets to explore the environmental impacts and consequences of COVID-19 and create open, digital, environmental solutions to the pandemic.

The first hackathon focused on air quality, exploring whether there is a correlation between air quality and the incidence and severity of COVID-19 infection, and aiming to determine the air quality threshold needed to improve individual outcomes. A team of four students – Dan Burrows, Laura Oporto, Piotr Morawiecki, and Yang Zhou – from the Department of Mathematical Sciences, who are all part of the cohort of the SAMBa CDT, worked on these challenges for five days, submitting their report right at the midnight deadline. They were chosen as overall winners and awarded a price of £3,000.

Student experience

Yang said: “The hackathon was a great training process. Our team were really devoted and so passionate about this project. By combining a literature review with our model results, we showed how pollution is damaging human health.”

The team worked closely together to obtain a well-developed digital solution using a combination of mathematical modelling and data analysis. This was pulled together into a summary report and presentation that was assessed by the NERC Jury.

Piotr said: “It's great that as PhD students we have opportunity to help UK institutions in COVID-19 related research. We will try to continue developing our solution to help researchers around the world understand how air pollution, and other demographic and economic factors, increase the rate with which COVID-19 (and possibly other viral epidemics) spread.”

Laura added: “It was great training and our team worked really hard during the week. We are so happy to have this recognised by the NERC Jury.”

SAMBa training

As part of the SAMBa CDT, students take part in regular Integrative Think Tanks (ITTs), problem formulation workshops bringing together students and staff with a variety of backgrounds and interests in Maths with external partners who pose high level challenges. Participants work in small teams over the week to reformulate the challenges into mathematical questions that form the basis of future research projects.

Dan said: “It was a great experience to explore other methods in statistics outside of those covered within my PhD and to have a short term, tangible goal to work towards. The process gave me insight into the common industrial challenge of working with real data sets to provide optimal solutions within a strict timeframe. I feel the experience from previous ITTs definitely prepared us well for the nature of the challenge, and it was great to feel a sense of teamwork as we all pulled together to meet the deadline.”