Maritime College students participate in ports hackathon

Friday, February 10, 2017

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Maritime College students participate in ports hackathon

A team of SUNY Maritime College students recently went to the New York City Ports and Logistics Hackathon, expecting to watch, not to participate.

Things did not go as they expected.

The event’s attendees were mostly computer programmers, not maritime industry professionals. After hearing a few pitches from the coders, some students realized that knew enough about the maritime industry to contribute.

“Many of the people pitching were coders who didn’t know the industry. They said ‘this is what I want to do’ but not all of their ideas were relevant,” said Daniel An, associate professor of math. “My students saw that they knew more about the industry and its needs, and that to pitch you just need to have an idea, not to be an expert.

“It felt like magic because we went to observe and then our students were pitching ideas and leading teams.”

During a hackathon, computer programmers and others collaborate to solve a problem. People share ideas and team up to develop the best ones quickly, usually over a few hours or days. At the end, they pitch their products in front of judges.

Fourteen people from Maritime went to the hackathon – two professors, An and Chris Clott, Maritime’s ABS chair of marine transportation, and a dozen students. An worked on one team and Clott mentored another. Several students worked on different teams. Two pitched their own ideas and lead their teams during the 36-hour event.

Joe Muchulsky, a Marine Engineering student from Virginia, worked with coders to develop an app that would use existing schedules, GPS data and other information to reduce the time a ship has to wait before coming into port. Existing schedules and data are not monitored in real time, so a ship that arrives early has to wait, wasting time and fuel. If a ship is running late, another could dock and unload in the meantime.

Connor Hughes, an Electrical and Mechanical Engineering student from Yonkers, New York, developed an idea to make smart containers by installing sensors to monitor conditions inside and the container’s location. The sensors would make it possible for a shipper to track the container’s progress toward its final destination.

The groups had 36 hours to develop their ideas and a prototype – usually an app – and then three minutes to pitch their work to a panel of judges. At the port hackathon, the judges were from Ports America, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Maersk Line and the Red Sea Gateway Terminal in Saudi Arabia.

“It definitely hit me how fast time goes,” Muchulsky said. “You have all these complexities. You sit down and write algorithms and you write hundreds of lines of code and you go through hundreds or thousands of data points. Then you have three minutes with the judges that make or break your project.”

Though neither Hughes’ nor Muchulsky’s teams won, both students made valuable contacts within the industry.

Hughes’ group has continued to meet to continue developing their idea with the aim of possibly creating a marketable product someday.

“These events are better than a job fair,” An said. “It’s a way to distinguish yourself, to say, ‘I’m not just looking for a job. I’m interested in the technology and am capable of thinking of these things and making them better.’”

Technological advances have roiled much of the world in recent decades but the maritime industry has been slow to change. It still relies on emails, phone calls, faxes and, in some cases, paper files, to do business. Increasingly, its customers and companies have begun making changes.

“The hackathon showed me that this school has a really unique identity and can contribute to these technological changes,” Muchulsky said. “With these bright young minds and the growing computer programming curriculum, we can have a really unique way to take over the industry.”