TeensInAI Space Apps Challenge: 2019

A question at TeensInAI is this: How do we enable teens, irrespective of their background to develop an interest in making impact products: digital-physical or digital? What is the best approach to immerse them in design-thinking, experience-design principles, coding and making? How do we engage teenagers in Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning for social-impact product and design entrepreneurship?

A number of approaches are at the disposal of TeensInAI. Co-creation workshops with actual users is one of many approaches. It is characterised by a mix of methods such as cultural immersion into lives of others, role-play, storyboards, access to free and open-source-code, sketches, user-testing and lo-fi prototypes. It enables teens to dig deeper; identify multiple solutions; converge onto one idea; validate the idea.

Enter NASA Space Apps Challenge 2019.

Space Apps is an annual NASA global hackathon. It serves as an international innovation incubation and civic engagement program, for scientists, coders, designers, digital-makers, storytellers, filmmakers and technologists. Project teams use NASA’s free and open-source-data, creatively, to address social problems.

This year’s NASA’s hackathon in London was organised by Elena Sinel of TeensInAI, alongside her team of mentors and project managers. Thirty odd teenagers came together at Onfido’s offices in London to look at  problems (via NASA’s challenge) that affect the quality of people’s lives: from use of Artificial Intelligence to mitigate social behaviour around plastic waste and pollution to incorporation of Artificial Intelligence into care of patients with chronic conditions. The goal was not to have  them make their own digital application or device, but to help them understand impact of social context and user-perspectives on their design decisions; logic behind their code for a seamless user-experience.

Day one: participatory design-thinking

We organised the group of teenagers into five teams of five individuals. Each team included a coder or two in some cases.  Mentors were on hand: A creative technologist to provide coding advice and a design-thinker to help frame the problem to solve were embedded in each team. This set-up allowed us to validate the viability of participatory design over a two day hackathon (or as a 5 day design-sprint). I observed that in two days the design-thinking process helped participating teens to collectively make the mental switch from making sense of evidence and context to story-boarding, sketching,  making lo-fi mock-ups to user-testing.

For a series of five day design sprints, in the UK, Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda and Nigeria for example with project partners and local education ecosystems we might look at the use of  design thinking to:

1.  Build an understanding and empathy with people that will be the users of any social project.

2.  Determine research approaches with which to engage users of the social project: to identify, constraints, opportunities and their needs.

3.  Generate ideas: prototypes – to bring in inclusive voices, identify locally workable solutions and reach out to groups that won’t usually come to workshops.

4.  Develop solutions towards desired impact: test different exploration paths with community of users and relevant stakeholders.

5. Understand areas within the education ecosystem that show promise in pedagogy that seeks to embrace technology.

Back to thirty plus teenagers, at Onfido.

For thirty plus teens who don’t know each other it helps that we develop pathways that support collective responsibility, for social innovation. Teens can become digital urban planners of their environment. First off, we started the day by using design-thinking process to prompt a get-to-know-one-another session. We  gave them various tasks which require collective consideration.  An example of such a task: they had to figure out which artefact out of a limited set of options is a must-have, should they find themselves stranded on a desert island. Each team saw the choice they need to make through the lens of survival on a desert island.

As a fun process, it followed these steps: address the problem from view-point of each person on the team; question the brief to re-frame context in which the island exists; develop and consider multiple options for survival; settle on a solution and refine it. Children deliberate collectively, by making their ideas visual. They are taught in school that there is one answer. Here they learn and practice multiple pathways to solve problems. It’s an intro into teasing out their innate collective problem solving traits. These are traits that cannot be automated. It’s a mindset required to connect dots effectively, among people who have different perspectives.

Each team connected dots between a menu of NASA “challenge questions” designed to appeal to a wide audience and their creative problem-solving capabilities. Topics in the menu of questions relate to NASA’s Artemis programme for a new Moon landing: a man and woman, by 2024; ideas for an orbital debris clean-up and making visible rising sea levels.

Day two: design and code for growth-hacking

When it came to coding we learned that it’s fun to co-design for impact with a view to opening teenagers’ ideas up for critique. They show-and-tell it to colleagues on other teams, and a panel of judges. However at this point it’s not critical to take a deep dive into software-engineering. Important attributes are attitudinal: developing an ability to connect dots socially and communicate with empathy, be passionate-about-problem solving,  be-curious about lives beneficiaries of product live, and have fun doing it.

There is a difference between teenagers who were first time coders and those exposed to code. Some of the teenagers had experimented with code before and had no problem using advice from a technology lead in their teams. Their key concern was a need for extra  time to explore on their own. So, they tended to huddle away into a two person sub-group to make sense of the code, in relation to ideas generated by their team. The freshers took  guidance on code from a technology lead, enough for them to follow their experienced colleagues as they play the algorithm game: Allowing each team to jointly evolve practical outlines for their concepts.

Whilst validation continued throughout the process, with mentors and project managers wearing users’ shoes, each team toyed with growth hacking. They toyed with different brand marketing messages, then tailored content to attract users’ feedback to their application and its’ associated service. This is where service design or design applications begin to use evidence from usability tests to improve learning outcomes, design strategy and design practice.

As there was a contest element a panel of judges filtered outcomes through the lens of some questions:  What does a user profile look like? What’s the relevance of the application to the needs of different user-profiles and how do the teams decide who is and who is not a target audience? How well are the concepts defined, in terms of impact? What types of creative research formats are deployed for user-testing? Is a minimum viable product valid? Is there a story behind a development road-map?  Which feature sets are critical and are sufficient?

Pitch, one road-trip stop at a time

Two projects developed during this hackathon are on a show and tell road-trip at the time of writing. The road trip stop list includes a number of players in the Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning space across the UK, that might support a growth-hack programme. A recent  stop: #Futurebanking at Barclays’ HQ in Canary Wharf London, two teams presented their minimum viable prototypes to London’s fintech community and teams responsible for the bank’s cloud based technology programmes.


By Ayodeji Alaka

Project Team

Project Lead: Elena Sinel (Founder, TeensInAI & Acornaspirations). Project Management: TeensInAI Team. Panel of Judges: Mary Hayes (Agile Delivery Expert), Tanya Ahmed (Head of UX, Quantum Black), Claudia Mendzil (Programme Manager, Seraphim Space Camp), Mohan Mahadevan (VP Research, Onfido), Gillian Lamela (VP Women in Tech, UK), Matt Scott (NASA Space Apps Community Manager), Devika Wood (Head of London and Health, Wayra UK). Mentors: Technology - Various. Design Mentor and Documentary Photography: Ayodeji Alaka. Sponsors: Barclays, Element AI, NASA, Onfido, Mastercard, International Space Apps Challenge, Wayra and QuantumBlack.

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