© Tim Pannell/Getty Images

Employee Hackathon 2016

The night of big ideas

11/2016 - Two locations, 160 participants and 20 prototypes developed in 24 hours: the first DB-internal "Hackathon" on the theme of "Hands-on digitalisation" was a complete success.

It’s already Friday afternoon as some employees of Deutsche Bahn AG are making their way to a very special nightshift. They are gathering in the mindbox in Berlin and in the Skydeck in Frankfurt/Main to create something big. The occasion: Deutsche Bahn AG has invited them to the first internal hackathon. Although teams from Deutsche Bahn have often taken part in public programming competitions before, this is the first time that the Group itself has staged such an event for employees only.

“We were slightly worried at first about attracting enough data enthusiasts for two locations who feel like getting more out of rail data in their spare time. There was still no community known by name that we could selectively address”, says Axel Sommer from DB mindbox. He’s one of the organisers of the programming competition. Nobody had expected that more than 160 participants would turn up to the joint event staged by mindbox, Skydeck and DB OpenData.

Many employees didn’t realise at first that programming knowledge was not essential in order to take part.

© Deutsche Bahn AG

We were astounded by the number of interested parties who asked us whether they could even take part with their knowledge of Excel, Pivot, and so on. This was obvious to us, because creative ideas can be realised using any tools. And that’s what it was all about.

Axel Sommer, DB mindbox


So the weeks before the event were spent mainly on advertising the hackathon and explaining what it is. And not just among potential participants. “For the event, we obviously wanted access to as much data from the departments and business units as possible. That’s another reason why only DB employees were allowed to take part, and the positive feedback we received is fantastic. Without the enthusiasm and support from the data contributors, it wouldn’t have been possible to gather such interesting data”, explains Sommer, still excited about the successful start.

The organisers faced a great challenge, as the hackathon was being staged in Frankfurt/Main and Berlin simultaneously. “We first had to provide the necessary infrastructure.” Cameras and projectors were installed so that participants could communicate continuously with each other via video conference. This functioned so well that teams were even formed across the two locations.

Specific themes were not defined. “We didn’t want to set any boundaries. The projects focused only on what you can do with data.” A motto that is also followed successfully at Skydeck.

Chance plays its part

For the team led by Martin Kemper from DB Systel, this meant: “How can we obtain new data using the Internet of Things and structure processes much more efficiently?” They had a very practical idea for this – for which a little chance even played into their hands. Just a few days before the hackathon, Amazon in the USA had released the “Dash Button” gadget. This is a small switch that is connected to the internet via WiFi and automatically orders a predefined product from Amazon at the push of a button. So you actually buy one button for your favourite detergent, another for the cat litter, and so on. But as IT experts often are, they soon ask the question: “What else can you do with this gadget?”

“The high number of fantastic results is the real success of this hackathon”, says the organiser, adding: “We were surprised by the wide variety of ideas and by what could be achieved in 24 hours .” Even the participants were impressed, not only by the team spirit but by the great collegiality among all fellow participants. They enjoyed meeting new people who think like they do.

Axel Sommer has the same view: “We wanted like-minded people from different departments to get to know each other and barriers to be broken up. This is virtually impossible in everyday work at a corporate group.” So the hackathon is to show not only how much idea potential employees have to offer, but enable ties to be built, which are certainly beneficial in everyday working life. The interdisciplinary collaboration produces a creative force that wonderfully represents the agile working environment. This was already evident in the excellent and effective collaboration between the organisers in the run-up to the event.

So it’s no wonder that Martin Kemper and his team have long since come up with other ideas of how to further develop “IoT Smart Booking”. “The team is currently considering to what extend this solution could be further developed for reserving flexible work space. Office work space as a resource could be used far more efficiently and allow agile teams to get together more quickly.” So there’s no need to worry about there being a shortage of great ideas at the next hackathon.

Overview of DB employee hackathon winners

The eight best projects developed during the DB employee hackathon were presented with an award by DB CEO Rüdiger Grube:

“Smart Booking”:  Wireless sensors transmit live occupancy messages, e.g. for meeting rooms, to optimise utilisation. The technology can also be used in stations, trains and Flinkster cars.

“Travel Log App Bahncard 100”: Frequent DB business travellers with a BahnCard 100 can use a mobile app to keep a travel log and document journeys for tax purposes.

“ICE Shadow Racer”: A web app creates an animated visualisation of scheduled and actual positions of trains and highlights any differences in colour. This helps to identify problem areas in real train movements and determine route sections that are vulnerable to delays.

“Rapid Response IOS”: Chats in the Apple iMessage app are to be enhanced with an integrated search function that automatically finds travel connections, displays prices and allows vehicles or tickets to be booked.

“Favomat”: A ticket machine shows customers pre-configured travel connections for frequently purchased travel destinations as dynamically generated favourites – on any ticket machine and specific to the time of day. Regional features, the timetable and day of the week are also taken into account. This reduces waiting time and increases acceptance of purchases using ticket machines.

“Master Data Management”: Master data is optimised and visualised by way of content-based links. Master data management is improved through real-time updates and a trust-level system.

“Data Screener”: A new web application based on open-source software for initial analysis of large data volumes. Data is adjusted, statistically explored and visualised.

“Helpdesk Chat-Bot”: The text-based dialogue system with avatar interaction assists BKU system end users with frequently-asked incident enquiries on a self-service basis.