Overview… ILW Smart Data Hack and Participate.Ed

What? Participate.Ed – a MyEd app to effectively enable researchers to recruit student participants for experiments at the University of Edinburgh, part of the ILW Smart Data Hack

When? 15th – 19th February 2016

Where? University of Edinburgh

Who? Just me

What About It?

So I signed up to the Smart Data Hack this year having flashbacks to the trainwreck that was last year’s experience for me. Which was a good thing because it was my first solid point of comparison, reminding me how far I had come since then in terms of personal and technical development.

I did however have a large amount of coursework to be doing over the Innovative Learning Week this, particularly for my Sustainable Energy Design Group Project, so that I wouldn’t be dealing with that workload when other assessments were due later on. Therefore knowing that I wouldn’t be able to commit a full workload for the week I gained no additional teammates that I could potentially drag along, which transpired to be a good thing because, in the end I did get an awful lot of coursework done but alas, insufficient coding to submit.

However, I am genuinely interested in developing the idea so I am writing this hackathon up anyway and maybe at some later point I can update this post with a link to a more developed Github repo for it.

The idea is that myself, and a whole load of other students, earn occasional cash or free coffee by participating in experiments at the university – generally within the schools of psychology, informatics, and linguistics. How much and how long varies experiment to experiment.

Currently the system for to recruit for this is researchers post an advert on the university’s career service, and the advert will generally either ask you to fill in a Doodle poll for your availability and/or preferred time and date to attend and then email them with what you have chosen, or they will ask you to email them and negotiate an available time and date. They ask you to confirm that fulfill their requirements – for example that you are a native British English speaker, or you are right-handed – these vary experiment to experiment.

Of all the experiments I have participated in, only a few have ever emailed reminders before your chosen time and date, and so for most, the researchers assume a very large drop out rate – sometimes 30% of the signed up participants never show up at their allocated time. Therefore they generally overbook their required numbers working on this assumption, and have to waste time waiting around for students who don’t appear.

Additionally, as a student, in order to find these experiments you have to trawl through the adverts for one-off or temporary jobs on the career service website, and open and read the description of each one in order to see if you fulfill the requirements. Often if the research is running for a long time, the adverts expire and to compensate for this there are often repeated postings up there too.

So, Participate.Ed is an app within the University of Edinburgh’s dashboard, known as MyEd, that is specifically for experiment participation. Students and staff who are willing to participate in things can select from a multichoice whichever details they comply with and are happy to be used to filter participants e.g. right-handedness, and whether they are happy to be contacted to participate or not. Researchers can then simply search through the potential participants using the relevant filters, and possibly sending mass emails to filter for more niche information.

When both agree to participate in an experiment, an email receipt is sent to the participant, with a calendar event, and a notification or two will be sent closer to the time. If a participant fails to attend without giving sufficient notice then researchers can give penalty points or flag them up on the system so they will be sent more notifications and researchers can choose to ignore them when recruiting next time. If a certain number of flags are marked (maybe 5?) then they are locked out the system for the year. If they feel this is in error then they can contact the Information Services team at the university who can manually remove them.

Probably Python or Node.js backend but how the databases are handled, I am not sure whether an independent SQL framework is necessary or whether it could be done internally within the exisisting MyEd framework.

So watch this space for more info!

Regarding the hackathon itself, I felt it was significantly better than last year, although it felt an odd choice of sponsors and the challenges were unusual, they were all equally interesting and notably none of the prizes were revealed until they were given out, so no one could take things too seriously, which was nice. It was a smaller, but good selection of participants across disciplines and skill sets although some of the momentum was lost a bit at the beginning of the week and I think there was a fair initial dropout. The mentors were not particularly supportive – they were predominantly third years who were all too busy with coursework to respond and none were particularly proactive in approaching participants to help, but they did try if someone approached them and I don’t think it mattered too much in the end.

Week long hackathons are always difficult to maintain the momentum for, and this had direct competition for competitors with the School of Engineering’s hardware hackathon, and the Synthetic Biology iGem hackathon, but I think Angel and Peter and the other organisers did well to keep it all going!

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