Expert blogspot
Edit 10 November 2023
by Pietro L. Verga, UIA Expert

Air-Break Datathon: a gathering of creativity and analytical exploration

datathon participants
How to actively engage youth, researchers, and experts in exploring innovative solutions to contemporary environmental challenges?

In the context of the second Air Fest, Project Partner Deda Next organised the Air-Break Datathon. But what exactly is a datathon? It's a marathon of ideas, a collective brainstorming session where participants work in teams to propose innovative uses of data, a gathering of creativity and analytical exploration. In this collaborative event, participants worked in teams to explore inventive applications of available datasets. Imagine teams diving into diverse datasets, cross-referencing information, and crafting solutions encompassing analyses, estimates, and visualizations. The goal is to explore unconventional avenues, construct maps, infographics, or simply formulate new and inspiring ideas.

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Held from October 8 to November 28, 2022, Air-Break Datathon took place entirely online. It engaged a community of high school students, university researchers, coding enthusiasts, environmental activists, and digital professionals. The mission was to address environmental challenges encapsulated in four thematic domains:

1. Urban Greenery: Assessing the valuation of planted trees.
2. Mobility: Identifying thoroughfares with heightened air pollution levels.
3. Air Quality: Investigating the nexus between heatwaves and air quality.
4. Extreme Events: Pioneering roles as environmental sentinels.

The Datathon constituted a team-oriented competition, with team sizes ranging from a minimum of 3 to a maximum of 5 members. It seamlessly blended informative sessions, practical exercises, coaching segments, and design-thinking processes. Teams received guidance from coaches and subject matter experts throughout the competition—spanning from preparatory phases to the presentation of solutions and potential implementation within the UIA Air-Break project.

Throughout the Datathon, teams harnessed data curated within the Air-Break project, including metrics related to air and climate quality, traffic flow analyses, counts of cyclists, pedestrians, and scooter transit, as well as data on heating systems, urban greenery, and demographic distribution. This information was accessible through the Open Data portal of the City of Ferrara.

Over nearly two months, participating teams undertook four structured online data missions. These missions entailed ideation, design conceptualization, and the refinement of solutions addressing the challenges posed. Guided by coaches, experts, and tutors, teams navigated the complex terrain of data-driven problem-solving.

Challenge n. 1 - How much are the trees we plant worth? 
Context: FerraraTua has so far catalogued more than 25,000 public trees of about 200 different species. For each plant, we know the height, the crown diameter, and the dimensional class of the trunk.
Goal: Estimate their economic value and their contribution to absorbing pollutants such as PM10, PM2.5, NOx annually, based on the characteristics of individual plants.
Expected results: An estimate in the form of a table or geographic layer, for each surveyed tree, showing its economic value and its ability to absorb pollutants (especially PM and NOx). This information can be added to the same geographic layer available at the City's GIS.

Challenge n. 2 - Which are the roads with the highest air pollution?
Context: During the drafting of the Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan (SUMP), the Municipality has estimated vehicle flows in the morning during peak hours (between 8 and 9 am). In addition to these data, the Municipality has conducted several hundred traffic surveys at specific points, quantifying the number of hourly transits divided by the length of vehicles and the average hourly speed.
Goal: The goal of this challenge is to cross-reference the estimated data developed for the SUMP with those specifically collected between 2017 and 2021, in order to derive a preliminary estimate of equivalent emissions (PM and NOx) at the level of individual road segments and in different time slots throughout the day.
Expected results: An estimate, for each road segment in Ferrara, of PM10, PM2.5, and NOx values in different time slots, to be integrated into the same geographic layer available at the City's GIS

Challenge n. 3 - Heatwaves and air quality: relationships and estimates.
Context: As part of the Air-Break project, 12 monitoring stations have been installed in the urban area to collect dynamic data related to air quality. The goal of this challenge is to verify if there are relationships between temperature/humidity data on one hand, and air quality data on the other, obtained during the summer period (from early June to late September).
Goal: Observe and estimate how the concentrations of specific gases in the air, such as ozone (O3) and volatile organic compounds (VOC), vary with increasing humidity and temperature conditions.
Expected results: A series of correlation diagrams (and possibly maps of O3 and VOC concentrations as a function of temperature) to understand how different measurement systems produce comparable data. This will help observe specific trends, deviations, and their reasons. Participants will need to study the collected data from the two measurement systems as comprehensively as possible, compare them with each other, and cross-reference them with climatic data on temperature and humidity recorded by the Air-Break monitoring stations.

Challenge n. 4 - Extreme events: becoming "environmental sentinels."
Context: On August 19, 2022, Ferrara experienced a severe downburst-induced storm. Currently, there is no updated and detailed mapping of floods caused by heavy rains and the damages reported by citizens and businesses. Following the guidelines set by the UN 2030 agenda, we aim to activate forms of active citizenship. We believe that environmental volunteering is a fundamental ingredient for achieving sustainable development.
In particular, we propose to empower the population of Ferrara on the effects of climate change through the establishment of an initial group of "Environmental Sentinels." The group, consisting of students, citizens, volunteers from organizations, and other associations operating in the area, will collect information on the impacts of extreme events using geographic information systems, sensors, and tools capable of collecting, integrating, and sharing data in a simple and automatic way. 
Goal: Collect the maximum number of photos and videos of the August 19 event and cross-reference them with data on damage reports received by the Municipality's URP. The aim is to create an initial map of the floods (including any data reported by the fire department), identifying the perimeters of the flooded areas (streets, squares, green areas) and the corresponding water heights.
Expected results: A new first geographic layer containing the perimeters of the flooded areas during the August 19 event and data related to the estimated water height reached. Any notes and links to photos/videos should be collected to make this data available through the Municipality's GIS online services.
A second geographic layer containing the precise location (by address) of all damage reports received by the URP.

Proposals were submitted for all Challenges except #2 Mobility. A panel of experts evaluated and judged the projects. The three winning teams not only basked in the glory of their innovative solutions but also walked away with enticing prizes—10 tickets to the Summer Festival 2023 and 10 vouchers to indulge in book purchases at Ferrara's local bookstores.
Below a summary of the winning ideas.

The Ambientalist (challenge: extreme events) tackled the aftermath of the August 2022 episode that hit the city by proposing a project on rain gardens. They explored how naturalistic engineering could mitigate the effects of extreme events. The team created a precise mapping using data to implement rain gardens, bringing multiple benefits such as preventing rainwater from mixing with sewage and overloading the drainage system. They also aimed to encourage the reappearance of local vegetation that can withstand drier climates, thanks to rainwater collected in soil slopes and depressions. The project aimed to drain rainwater in designated natural basins, benefiting urbanized areas. The provided ecosystem services were numerous, including biodiversity, water conservation, and reduced costs for public administrations in watering public green spaces. Importantly, these rain gardens could be implemented without consuming additional land.

Ghirevesto (challenge: urban greenery) presented the "Trees are not enough" project to encourage proper, conscious, and intentional tree planting in Ferrara. After a careful analysis and mapping of green and public areas, the team proposed solutions such as involving the community by gifting plants along with informative booklets about suitable tree species and how to care for them. They also aimed to design and increase private green spaces, subsidizing associated costs to promote tree planting strategically for pollution control. Educating the community on the scientific and health aspects of greenery, beyond just aesthetics, was part of their plan. The team also proposed regulating private tree planting to ensure maximum effectiveness in combating pollution and suggested the creation of vertical forests.

Hakuna MaData (challenge: air quality) introduced the "Make Data your Ally" project, an application that, through real-time study of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) and ozone, could estimate air quality over several days and suggest actions to improve it. Recommendations included reducing traffic in the Municipality of Ferrara and establishing a limited traffic zone. The app relied on data from distributed monitoring stations across the territory to ensure better prediction performance.

Figure 1 – Ferrara’s Deputy Mayor Alessandro Balboni greeting one of the winners of the Datathon
Figure 1 – Ferrara’s Deputy Mayor Alessandro Balboni greeting one of the winners of the Datathon

The data marathon kicked off with some really interesting stats: 8 weeks of work, 14 teams, 64 participants, 11 innovative projects, and 30 datasets used and made available on the official portal of the Municipality of Ferrara. 
The Air-Break Datathon transcended its status as a competition; it became a collaborative exploration into the realm of data. It encouraged participants to think expansively and explore unconventional solutions, inviting them to contribute to a sustainable and environmentally conscious future. Whether a student, coding enthusiast, or environmental activist, the Datathon provided a platform to be part of a movement leveraging data for a brighter tomorrow. The ideas generated by participants stood poised as potential keys to unlocking innovative solutions to the pressing environmental challenges of our time.

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